Miners in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region never had it easy, forced to extract coal in some of the worst conditions seen in the industry worldwide.
The Zasyadko mine blast on Wednesday, in which at least 17 miners were killed and 16 others still missing and feared dead by late evening, was just the latest tragedy in a region where the industry is further ravaged by fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev's army.
The Zasyadko mine, which was founded in 1958, lies in territory controlled by the so-called separatist Donetsk People's Republic (DNR).
Owned by a Ukrainian lawmaker in his 80s, it is the only mine in the coal-rich region that has continued operating despite the shelling and the clashes just kilometres away.
The mine employs 10,000 people and over 200 of them were underground at the of the accident, believed to have been caused by a build-up of methane gas.
And while rebel authorities claim they can ensure adequate rescue missions, experts say the war has brought further chaos to the already crippled industry.
"The situation in the coal industry changed seriously for the worse with the arrival of the DNR, they don't have enough people and equipment," said Mykola Volynko, who heads the Donetsk Basin -- or Donbas - mining union.
His is one of two miners' trade unions in the region, but while miners remain members of his group, he himself was forced to leave Donetsk, where separatists have proclaimed their own union, though it is not yet operational.
"They are simply ruining the coal industry in Donetsk, many mines are beginning to flood, water seeping to the surface," Volynko added.
"Nobody monitors safety precautions so we have these situations."
Coal-mining culture is deeply embedded in Donetsk and Lugansk, the two regions comprising the Donbas, and the head of the DNR which broke off from Ukraine frequently flaunts his old days as a miner in interviews.
Many miners in the region, while supporting the separatists, complain about the lack of work and the late salaries.
- Miners 'are depressed' -
"Among miners, moods are depressed," said Maksim Yeremeichenko, a 52-year-old who works at a mine in Makiyivka, a town bordering Donetsk.
"Everyone is hoping the situation stabilises... they only paid for October recently," he said.
He said Zasyadko had remained operational because it pays miners their wages on a daily basis.
But the high toll of Wednesday's gas blast threatens to stir more discontent as families of missing miners seek to find out who was trapped underground.
Zasyadko sells high-quality coking coal, but the facility's deep and complicated shafts and exhausted infrastructure have already led to numerous deadly accidents over the past decade.
In 2007, 153 miners perished in back-to-back blasts caused by methane buildup. A year earlier, 13 miners died from the same cause. In January, hundreds became trapped in the mine after a shell hit a regional electric substation leaving their pit without power.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he had ordered several rescue teams to help out but they were turned away. The head of the rebel administration in the region Maksim Leshchenko said: "We don't need the help."
"There is no point in asking Ukraine or Russia for help," added Yuliana Bedilo, a spokeswoman for the DNR emergency situations ministry. "We ensure people's safety both on the surface and underground."
At the Donetsk trauma centre however, director Alexander Oprichenko conceded lacking "some drugs and medical material" despite "help from Russia."
Since the war broke out 11 months ago and the rebel authorities stepped in, some 700 mine rescuers have left the region, said Mykhailo Volynets, who heads Ukraine's independent miners trade union.
He slammed the rebel leadership for refusing the help offered by Kiev. "It's simply politics," he told AFP. "They don't have a complete staff, they don't have enough people."
But addressing the press, DNR's emergency minister Alexander Kostrubitsky tried to put the drama into perspective. "There were explosions in 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2007," he said. "The Donetsk mines are the most dangerous in Ukraine."