In one of the worst mining accidents in recent years, at least nine workers have died and several others remain trapped under debris in Eastern Coalfields Limited’s Rajmahal mines in Godda district, Jharkhand. The accident occurred around 7.30 pm on Thursday, when a mound of piled-up earth at the Pahari Bhorya site caved in and the workers were buried under massive amounts of debris.

The mine was an open-cast one. In open-cast mining, large pits are dug to access the coal seam. The excavated earth is piled up on one side of the mine.

More than 20 workers were trapped under 200 feet of debris when the debris removed at the open-cast mine collapsed on Thursday evening. Image Credit: Manob Chowdhury

“This overburden dump, a huge landmass that had been dug up earlier and measured over a hundred feet high, collapsed, burying the workers and the machines at the site,” said Varun Varghese, the spokesperson for Eastern Coalfields Limited.

Several workers were feared trapped under the 200 feet of debris on Friday afternoon.

Rescue operations continued through Friday. Image Credit: Manob Chowdhury

Arvind Kumar, district collector of Godda, said workers at the mine had put the number of those present at the site when the accident occurred at 22. “Rescue operations are still on. I am unable to independently confirm the number of persons who may still be trapped,” said Kumar, who was supervising the rescue efforts at the site.

Varghese said 10 machines – excavators and dumpers – were at work when the accident took place. One to two workers were assigned per machine. Two dumpers were driven away when the overburden began to slide.

Ten machines – excavators and dumpers – were buried under the debris. Image Credit: Manob Chowdhury

The superintendent of police of Godda, HL Chauhan, told news agencies that rescue operations started at 6 am on Friday. Varghese denied that rescue work was delayed because of fog at the mine site at night. “Rescue operations started late last night itself,” he said. “Two technical directors reached the site at 2 am from West Bengal to monitor the rescue operations.”

Mahalaxmi Infra Contract Pvt Limited, a mining contractor, was carrying out mining operations on behalf of Eastern Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, a public sector company. Mahalaxmi had hired the workers – the majority of whom were migrants – to work as operators on contractual basis at the Pahari Bhorya site.

Coal India Limited had outsourced work to a private mine developer. Image Credits: Manob Chowdhury

Five of the nine dead have been identified as Nageshwar Kumar, Rajendra Yadav and Harekrishna Yadav, from Bihar; Brajesh Yadav from Uttar Pradesh; Javed Akhtar from Garhwa district in Jharkhand.

Rahul Guha, director general of mine safety at Coal India Limited, said a survey team had reached the site on Friday from Dhanbad. “It is a bench slope failure, comparable to a landslide of debris at the site,” he said. “This was an outsourced patch, where a private mine developer was engaged. We have set up a high level committee to enquire into what caused the accident.”

A senior official with Coal India Limited in Ranchi who declined to be identified said such accidents could happen if the debris, or overburden, lying over the coal seams was not spread out properly. “Open-cast mining requires a right balance to be maintained of the overburden’s slope,” he said. “The material removed to expose the coal must be spread over a sufficiently large base. If this is not done, the slope may be too steep and vertical and creates a risk of collapse such as in this case.”

Experts say such accidents are a result of poor maintenance of the overburden. Image Credit: Manob Chowdhury

Jharkhand chief minister Raghuvar Das has announced Rs 2 lakh compensation for the families of those killed in the collapse and Rs 25,000 aid to the injured.