Alarms sounded again a week ago Wednesday in Barentsburg when a Ukrainian man in his 40s suffered severe back and head injuries. But what really happened 455 meters below ground is still a mystery.
"We are working on the investigation, but there is no clear answer," said Arild Lyssand, a police chief inspector for The Governor of Svalbard, who was among those who flew to the Russian mining community to investigate the scene, along with officials from the Norwegian Mining Directorate and the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority.
"There were no eyewitnesses to the incident, only 'earwitnesses,'" Lyssand told Svalbardposten immediately after the Norwegians returned to the surface after several hours in the mine."The explanation from the injured man is going to be critical."
Exactly where the accident occurred has not been confirmed.
"We found different footprints near a conveyor belt, which may indicate that it happened there. But the injury picture is not clear," Lyssand said as Svalbardposten went to press on Wednesday of this week. He declined to elaborate on what investigators found.
Are there any working theories?
"I don't think we should speculate about that," he said. "We need to get an explanation from the injured party first."
It is not necessary at present to close the Russian state-owned mine due to the accident, said Otto Bjarte Johnsen, a senior advisor for the labor inspection authority, who was among the investigators at the scene.
"My role is mainly to contribute to the implementation of preventive measures, but we must first know what has happened," he said. "And we do not know now."
There is no production currently in the mine because workers are setting up a new stope. It was during that work the accident occurred.
"The shift was doing assembly work," Johnsen said. "The conveyor belt – where the man was found, according to our information – is intended to carry out coal when the stope is completed."
They do not know with certainty whether the belt was operational when the incident occurred.
"Purely theoretically we do not know if that was where he was injured either," Johnsen said.
Pending further developments, Johnsen said there are no plans to conduct an immediate assessment of safety conditions in the mine that has been the site of several serious accidents and fatalities in recent years.
In 2008, two men were killed when a fire broke out. Another person died a few weeks later during extinguishing work. In 2012, a worker was killed in a clamping accident. The year after, two men died in different accidents and a third had to have his foot amputated. Consequently, the labor inspectorate closed the mine in September of 2013 before allowing it to reopen in January of 2014.
"They got some orders, which they obeyed. Then they got to open again," Johnsen said, adding labor officials are scheduled to conduct a new round of inspections in Barentsburg on March 10.
"Safety culture and such is something that we will take up then," he said.
Injuries remain serious
He said dialogue with Trust Arktikugol, the Russian state-owned company responsible for management of the settlement, in connection with the most recent accident has been good.
"We have been well received, as usual," he said.
The injured person's condition as Svalbardposten went to press is still serious, but stable, according to University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø. Further details about the man's injuries, which initially included the possibility of paralysis to his legs, was not available.