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The anniversary of the Soko mine accident: Fatherless children and unanswered questions

The families of the miners who died in the “Soko” mine, that is, their representative, were not allowed to view the case files from the investigation that was completed by the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Aleksinac and announced that there was no responsibility for the death of these people.

Slađan Dimitrijević ended up working as an auto electrician, but that job never interested him. When he told his father, who worked in a mine, that he wanted to be a miner, he was emphatically against it. The mining job is not only difficult, but also very dangerous.

Slađan’s father and others from the surrounding towns still remembered the year 1998, when 29 miners lost their lives in the Soko mine. In the big explosion, some of the employees were burned, and some suffocated.

In the pits of this mine there is methane, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. Although it is not poisonous, it displaces oxygen from the air, which can cause people to suffocate. It is also highly flammable and can cause explosions.

That is why it was very important to monitor the amount of methane in the pit. Miners had to withdraw from their mining sites when methane was above 1.5%.

However, Slađan is too young for that to worry him and prevent him from fulfilling what he set out to do. Over time, from the position of a pit driver, who took care of transporting coal from the pit, he became an assistant miner – he built corridors in the mine with his colleagues.

Miner Slađan Dimitrijević

That night between March 31 and April 1 last year, he did the same thing.

Everything seemed normal until a little after four in the morning he heard a deafening noise, as if something was crashing down.

Dust.

He saw when he turned his head in the direction of the shaft and illuminated that part with the lamp. The ventilation that allowed air to flow in the pit stopped working. The power went out.

“Metan, you’re pulling back!” he heard his colleague shout.

He headed for the clean air, the so-called wind current, in the space between the two tunnels. He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up at any moment. The wind current is his way out so he doesn’t suffocate. She was close.

“I’m going to run now,” he thought.

At that moment he fainted.

The fight for life

A few moments later, not far from where Slađan collapsed, Milan Savić, in charge of safety control in the pit, woke up from unconsciousness.

Dust.

That was the last thing he remembered. It was so thick that the glaring light of the miners’ lamps could not be seen. Before he passed out, he heard a colleague yelling to run because he had leaked methane.

Now, across his legs lay a colleague whom everyone called Fale. Savić turned around. He also saw other miners lying down.

He stood up and began to shake each of them in a panic.

Fale was lying face down in the rake, the machine that buys the coal. Savić ran up and turned him on his side so he wouldn’t suffocate. To the colleague who appeared in the meantime, as well as to the others who were waking up from unconsciousness, he shouted:

“Help me get him out, he’s alive!”

A race against time has begun to wake up the unconscious and save them.

The first thing Slađan Dimitrijević felt were slaps and water on his face.

“Honey! Sweetie!”, his colleagues called him.

It was on one of the belts that carry the coal outside. They were now taking the miners out like coal. As soon as they saw that Slađan had regained consciousness, the miners ran to the others to pull them out. Sladjan remained leaning on his side. Across from him, he was looking at his colleague who was gasping for air. In a second, everything came back to him.

He waited for about 15, 20 minutes to completely lighten up and then he came out of the pit. Outside, the darkness was replaced by the gray of a gloomy rainy morning. And the expectant looks of the families who gathered waiting for news about their sons. Brothers. Fathers. Husbands.

One of them was Predrag Trivunac, also a miner, whose brother was with Slađan in the pit.

“Is he alive?” Is he alive?”, he asked him tearfully, “please tell me”.

Sladjan just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t tell him anything because he just didn’t know.

Then the brother of Slađan’s friend Petar, a man with whom he grew up and was a good friend, appeared. That evening they came to work together.

Peter’s brother asked him the same. Did Peter survive?

Sladjan just cried and hugged him.

A mine in trouble

Zorica Vukadinović, the republican inspector of mining, also arrived in the yard in front of the pit. She had a difficult task – while the injured were still being pulled out, she had to establish the cause of the accident.

Together with people from the company, she went down into the pit to inspect the accident site, and then took the necessary documentation from the administration building.

In front, Zorana Mihajlović, then Minister of Mining and Energy, gave a statement to the journalists who had appeared in the meantime. Standing next to her were the then director of the Soko mine Drago Milinković and acting director of the Resavica Public Company, within which the mine operated, Saša Spasić. While Milinković said that security measures were at the highest level, and Spasić claimed that it was an accident, Minister Mihajlović had a different statement.

“This is a difficult moment for all the people who are here, but also for all of us.” The inspection, the police and all competent authorities are on the spot and are doing everything necessary so that after the investigation we will know the exact causes of the tragedy.”

Zorana Mihajlović gives a statement to journalists in front of the Soko mine; photo: Ministry of Mining and Energy

At that moment, this statement could have seemed like a calming down of the situation before the elections, which were in two days, in which her party at the time expected a convincing victory. However, what was not heard at the time was that there had been intolerance between the Ministry and those responsible in the mine for some time.

The Soko mine has not paid the state mining rent for years. All the time he lived on subsidies from the budget and Mihajlović believed that he should be imprisoned.

However, in that place and at that moment, there was no time to start this story. Now it was necessary to extract the survivors and determine whether there were any casualties.

Take care of me Lav

Dragana had been awake since four in the morning because of the baby. She was supposed to give birth to her son Lav on the very first of April, but he came into the world about a month and a half earlier. Bojan Stajić, her husband, was working that evening.

He and Dragana used to correspond all the time on the way to the mine, and to continue after he got out of the pit. The last message she received from him was “Take care of me Lav”.

However, around six o’clock, towards the end of the third shift, Bojan did not answer. Then Dragana’s nephew called to ask if Bojan was working.

“He’s at work.”

“Got to first class now?”

“No, he was doing the third one.”

“Aw, call him now,” he said. “Call him as soon as possible,” recalls Dragana of the conversation.

Bojan was unavailable. She felt that something had happened to him. She agreed with her cousin that he should go to the hospital and check that he is not there. He informed her that he was not on the list, but that he would go to the mine to have a look.

After that, he didn’t answer for a long time.

At one point, the front door of Dragana’s apartment opened and her nephew was standing there. Then she was sure that Bojan had died.

Dragana and Bojan walking with their son Lav

A few kilometers away, in the village of Subotinac, Sanja Trivunac left her children with her mother and together with her father headed for the mine where her husband Nenad was working that evening. The ambulance passing by on the road made her panic and fear, but she still hoped that everything was fine with him.

When they arrived at the mine yard, one of the union members she knew from before came up to her and hugged her. She still believed that everything was fine.

Sanya’s gaze was fixed on the exit from the mine. Ambulances came and went, taking away the injured. She kept looking at that one point all the time and waited for Nenad to come out. At one point, all the paramedics left and never came back.

“Why aren’t they coming to get the others who are still down there?”, she asked her father, “my husband didn’t come out.”

The first hearse appeared at the gate. Her father told her that she probably had to.

Then seven more came.

Eight miners died, and Nenad was one of them.

Miner Nenad Trivunac with colleagues

 

Trumpeters and a funeral

The ambulance that took the injured from the mine first took them to Sokobanja and then to the hospital in Aleksinac. Slađan was also lying in one of the hospital beds. Only when he got there did he find out which of his colleagues had died the previous evening.

Sladjan had trouble recovering mentally from everything. He thought about everything that happened then. He couldn’t get his school friend Peter out of his head. He wasn’t supposed to work in the mine at all. He graduated from the Teachers College, but could not find a job. He ended up in a dark pit.

He wondered if he could have done something more, to come back after he regained consciousness that evening and save someone.

At night, he was tormented by restless dreams in which he works in the pit with the workers who died.

Graffiti in Aleksinac dedicated to the injured miners

 

On the third day, when the workers were discharged from the hospital, it was Sunday. Citizens went to the polls, and the families buried the injured miners. After the funeral, the broken families went to their houses, where a ghostly silence settled in, while the sounds of trumpets rang out all over Serbia.

The election victory was celebrated.

Stacking the dice

After the field, inspector Vukadinović reviewed the documentation. She was slowly putting the pieces together about what happened that night. She was also helped by the statements of some of the people who were in the pit.

The accident most likely occurred because of methane escaping from the ceiling.

Two weeks before the accident, methane exceeded the permissible limit of 1.5% for more than 22 hours. A few minutes before the accident, it crossed this limit several times, and then it started to grow to such an extent that the measuring device could no longer follow it. When the oxygen is below 8%, a person falls into a coma after 40 seconds, begins to convulse, stops breathing and dies. At one point that night, there was so much methane that there was almost no oxygen in the air.

Soko mine

 

However, the documentation showed that that part of the mine was not even supposed to work since 2013.

Inspector Vukadinović noticed that the Ministry of Mining did not approve their work two and a half years before the accident because they did not pay mining rent.

Also, the works at the place where the accident happened were carried out according to the project that was changed two months earlier. Then, despite the procedure, the construction of another room with fresh air near the excavation was abandoned.

Acting director of Resavica Saša Spasić did not agree to an interview with CINS journalists.

When she finished the report, the inspector handed it, together with other documentation, to the deputy prosecutor of the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Aleksinac, Janko Dinić.

The families hoped that the truth would come out about who was responsible for the death of their loved ones.

However, disappointment awaited them.

Waiting for answers

Journalists and families of the miners who died huddled in the gallery of the Aleksinac Cultural Center. It has been 11 months since the accident, but they have not received any answers to questions about the responsibility for the accident. The prosecutor has already twice refused to initiate criminal proceedings. The last time, during the Christmas holidays this year, the families received a notification that the criminal complaint against the now former minister Mihajlovic was rejected.

That is why the family’s lawyer organized a press conference where he announced an appeal against the prosecutor’s decision.

He also said that the families are demanding justice for their dead, not for the mine to be closed.

Bratislav Stojanović, lawyer of the families of the injured miners at the press conference

 

After two weeks, the lawyer’s complaint was accepted. For the third time, the prosecutor will have to decide on the initiation of the procedure.

The families are waiting for answers because 12 children were left without their fathers that evening.

The youngest among them is Lav.

When he looks at him, Dragana sees Bojan in him, because as time goes by he looks more and more like him. She, on the other hand, still lives trapped in that April Fool’s day.

Others tell her that she needs to move on and that accidents happen. However, don’t put up with it. It won’t happen again in her family.

He can already promise himself one thing – he will do everything to prevent Lav from following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a miner.

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