Rescuers are tunneling through solid rock from an adjacent mine to reach the miners. By Tuesday morning, the tunnelers were 6-10 feet away from the area where the men are believed to have been stranded by the flood of icy water, said Maj. Gen. Viktor Kapkanchikov of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry.
Andrei Khudyakov, the leader of rescuers at the Zapadnaya mine in Novoshakhtinsk, said his team had plugged the hole through which water had flowed into the shaft. Hundreds of tons of rock, soil and reinforced concrete pillars had been dumped into the shaft to seal the leak, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
"Maybe we'll punch through and find them standing there, alive," Khudyakov told reporters.
The rescue workers completed drilling a small hole through the wall of the shaft on Tuesday morning and saw an open chamber, said Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Alexander Moskalets. In this way, he said, rescuers confirmed that they had been tunneling in the right direction, and could now widen the hole to a diameter large enough to move through.
The rescue teams were working in shifts, emerging from the mine with blackened faces and exhausted-looking eyes. They have tunneled through about 50 meters (165 feet) in four days, compared with the month such a job usually requires, Russian state television reported.
The miners were working some 2,625 feet below ground on Thursday when water from a subterranean lake leaked into a shaft above them, blocking their way to the surface. On Saturday, 33 other miners who had been trapped by the flood were rescued.
Lyubov Tkach said her husband Sergei had been with the 33 but that he got separated. She sat in the mine company headquarters on Tuesday, her eyes red-rimmed from crying, waiting for news.
"We are all in despair," she said. "But I hope he is alive and didn't go far from the place where he got lost. I really hope everything will be fine."
Alexander Kornichenko, the deputy chairman of the Russian mine safety authority, said rescue officials believed the miners had found a dry place to stay, and that temperatures in the mine were 75 F. He said, however, that evaporation in the mine could expose them to cold.
"As long as they have oxygen and water, they have a chance to survive," he said.
There were 71 miners working in the mine in the Rostov-on-Don region, about 600 miles south of Moscow, when the accident occurred. Twenty-five miners managed to escape to other pits and reach the surface after several shafts were flooded.
According to ITAR-Tass, it was the second such accident at the Zapadnaya mine this year. It said water flooded the mine in February, but there were no people inside at the time.
Accidents are common in the Russian coal industry, and miners stage frequent protests over wage delays and declining safety standards. According to the Independent Coal Miners' Union, 68 miners were killed on the job last year and 98 in 2001.