Bodies of Kazakh Rescue Workers Swallowed by Sinkhole Still Missing After Seven Weeks

The search for rescuers who fell into a sinkhole at a mine owned by JSC Maikainzoloto may resume in ten to fourteen days, it has been announced by Deputy Chairman of the Committee of Industrial Safety of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, Musa Tanabaev. “Work on expansion and deepening” must be completed, Tanabaev said, and only then can a “direct search for the missing begin.”

The wife of Aidos Shaimerden, one of the missing rescue workers, has repeatedly asked local authorities to involve foreign specialists in the search. The Ministry of Emergency Situations has responded that this is not required yet.

In the early hours of January 4th, near the Maikainsky mine in the Pavlodar Region, a bus carrying three rescue workers and a driver fell into a sinkhole. Shortly before the incident, they had received an emergency call about smoke in the area of the mine and proceeded to the site. Preliminary measurements of the sinkhole put the width of the collapse at 500 meters, with a depth of 150 meters.

At noon of the same day, the bodies of two rescue workers who fell into the breach were found in the debris at a depth equal to that of a 25-story building. They were 53-year-old Oleg Tyshkevich, and 24-year-old Berdikan Sarkyt. The rescue operation was, however, complicated by the fact there could be more collapses at the edge of the newly formed pit.

On January 5th, the police began an investigation into the tragedy. According to details of the special investigation, dust at the site of the sinkhole was mistaken for smoke, and at 01:14 a bus with first responders went to the location of a possible fire. The director of the mine followed them by car. When he saw the bus fall, he managed to slow down and report what had happened – thus preventing the death of four firefighters who were following.

During the ensuing search, a tracking device showed that the bus was buried at a depth of about five meters from the bottom of the funnel. Two days later, rescuers with a surveyor descended to the bottom of the breach and examined it for the first time.

On January 18th, heavy equipment completed the laying of a side ramp and lowered a small excavator down to the center of the sinkhole on a safety cable. During the initial excavation, parts of the bus, an oxygen cylinder, breathing apparatus and a rescue worker’s bag were located. Later, a helmet, parts of the interior of the bus, and a first responder’s hand-held radio were discovered.

On January 26th, a special commission found that the collapse of rock mass into the abandoned mine was caused by unsatisfactory production management, there having been no proper oversight of the breaches formed as a result of the company’s activities.

An investigation was launched for “violation of safety rules during mining or construction works,” and more than 40 employees and the management of the LLP were questioned, whilst documents and video surveillance footage were seized.

On February 3rd, search efforts at Maikainzoloto were suspended after the appearance of another funnel at the bottom of the sinkhole. “Voids were observed at the bottom of the funnel,” the press service of the Emergency Situations Department of Pavlodar Region reported, and the “excavator and specialists were urgently raised to the surface.” Rescue attempts were further hindered by sub-zero temperatures and a powerful storm.

The families of the deceased rescuers have received financial assistance in the amount of 4.5 million tenge (about $10,000). Similar payments will be made to the other families upon completion of the search for the missing first responders in the event that the bodies are found or legally declared dead. The families will also be assigned a state social benefit for the loss of the breadwinner – this is a monthly stipend for each member of the family under the age of 18.