Investigative storiesEnergy
03 Apr 2023

One Year after the Soko Mine Accident: Fatherless Children and Unanswered Questions

Miners of the Soko mine on the day of the accident; photo: Beta/Ministry of Mining and Energy/Zoran Petrović
One year after the death of eight miners in the Soko mine, many questions remain unanswered. CINS brings the story of what happened that night, raises the question of responsibility, and how one woman decided to break the chain of accidents.

Slađan Dimitrijević was studying to become a car electrician, but never really found that job interesting. When he told his father, who was working in a mine, that he also wanted to be a miner, he was emphatically against it. A miner’s job is not only difficult, but also very dangerous.

Fresh in the memory of Slađan’s father and others from the surrounding towns was the year 1998, when 29 miners lost their lives in the Soko mine. In a large 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 not poisonous, it displaces oxygen from the air, which can cause people to suffocate. Also, it is easily flammable and can lead to explosions.

That’s why it is very important to monitor the amount of methane in the pit. Miners have to leave their digging spots when the methane is above 1.5%.

However, Slađan was 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, in charge of transporting coal from the pit, he became an assistant miner – building corridors in the mine with his colleagues.

Miner Slađan Dimitrijević; photo: Private archive

That night between 31 March and 1 April last year, he was doing just that.

Everything seemed like business as usual until a little after 4 a.m., when he heard a deafening noise, as if something came crashing down.


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

“Methane, get back!”, he heard his colleague shout.

He started heading 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 immediately. The wind current is his escape from suffocation. It was close.

“I’m going to run now,” he thought.

At that moment he passed out.

Fighting for their lives

A few moments later, not far from where Slađan collapsed, Milan Savić, in charge of safety control in the pit, was coming to.


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 had heard a colleague yelling to run because methane had come through.

Lying across his legs was his colleague, whom everyone called Fale. Savić turned around. He also saw other miners on the ground.

He got up and, in a panic, began to shake each and every one of them.

Fale was lying face down in the rake machine, which collects coal. Savić ran up to him and turned him on his side so he wouldn’t suffocate. He shouted to a colleague who appeared in the meantime, as well as to others who were coming to:

“Help me get him out, he’s alive!”

What ensued was a race against time to wake up those that were unconscious and rescue them.

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

“Slađan! Slaćko!”, his colleagues called him.

He 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. Slađan remained laying on his side. Across from him, he was looking at his colleague, who was gasping for air. In a second it all came back to him.

He waited for about 15-20 minutes to fully regain consciousness and then he came out of the pit. Outside, the darkness was replaced by gray, gloomy, and rainy morning. And the anxious looks of the families who gathered awaiting 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 with tears in his eyes, “please tell me”.

Slađan just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t tell him anything because he simply did not know.

Then appeared the brother of Slađan’s friend Petar, a good friend whom he grew up with. They came to work together earlier that evening.

Petar’s brother asked him the same. Is Petar alive?

Slađan just started crying and hugged him.

A mine in trouble

Zorica Vukadinović, republic inspector of mining, also arrived in the yard in front of the pit. She was assigned a difficult task – while the injured were still being extricated, 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. Next to her stood the then director of the Soko mine Drago Milinković, as well as Saša Spasić, acting director of the Resavica Public Company, within which the mine was operating. While Milinković said that security measures had been at the highest possible level, and Spasić claimed that it was an accident, Minister Mihajlović had a different statement prepared.

“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 scene and are doing everything necessary so that after the investigation we will know the exact causes of the tragedy.”

Zorana Mihajlović giving a statement to the media in front of the Soko mine; photo: Ministry of mining and energy

At that moment, this statement may have seemed like trying to calm things down ahead of the elections, which were two days away, in which her party at the time was expecting a convincing victory. However, what was not heard at the time was that for some time, there had been friction between the Ministry and those responsible at the mine.

The Soko mine had not paid mining rent to the state for years. It had been living on subsidies from the budget and Mihajlović was of the opinion that it should be closed down.

However, in that place and at that moment, there was no time to start this conversation. It was now important to extract the survivors and determine whether there were any casualties.

Take care of my son

Dragana had been awake since 4 a.m. because of her baby. She was supposed to give birth to her son Lav on that 1 April, but was born about a month and a half earlier. Bojan Stajić, her husband, was working that evening.

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

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

“He’s at work.”

“Covering the first shift?”

“No, he was doing the third shift.”

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

Bojan’s number was unavailable. She felt that something had happened to him. Her nephew said he would go to the hospital and check if he was there. He told her that he was not on the list, but that he was going to go to the mine to have a look.

After that, he didn’t call her for some time.

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

Dragana and Bojan walking with their son Lav; photo: Private archive

A few kilometers away, in the village of Subotinac, Sanja Trivunac had just dropped off her kids at her mother’s and together with her father headed for the mine where her husband Nenad was working that evening. The ambulance passing by on the road brought her into a state of panic and fear, but she was still hoping that he was fine.

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.

Sanja’s gaze was fixed on the exit from the mine. Ambulances came and went, taking away the injured. She kept looking at that one spot the entire time, waiting 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 hasn’t come out yet.”

The first hearse appeared at the gate. Her father told her that it was probably necessary protocol.

Then seven more came.

Eight miners were killed, and Nenad was one of them.

Miner Nenad Trivunac with his colleagues; photo: Private archive

Trumpets and a funeral

The ambulance that was transporting the injured from the mine first took them to Sokobanja and then to the hospital in Aleksinac. Slađan was 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.

Slađan had trouble recovering mentally from everything. Everything that happened kept going through his mind. He couldn’t get his school friend Petar out of his head. He wasn’t even supposed to have been working in the mine at all. He graduated from the Teacher Education Faculty, but could not find a job. His life ended in a dark pit.

He was wondering if he could have done something more, if he could have gone back after he regained consciousness that evening and saved someone.

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

Mural in Aleksinac dedicated to the victims of miners; photo: CINS

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 homes, where a ghastly silence settled in, while the sounds of trumpets resounded throughout Serbia.

The election victory was being celebrated.

Putting the pieces together

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

The accident most likely happened because of a methane leak from the ceiling.

Two weeks before the accident, methane exceeded the permitted 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 keep track of it. When oxygen levels drop below 8%, a person falls into a coma after 40 seconds, starts convulsing, stops breathing and dies. At one point that night, there was so much methane that there was almost no oxygen in the air.

The Soko mine; photo: N1

However, the documentation showed that that part of the mine was not even supposed to be working 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 had not been paying mining rent.

Also, the works at the place where the accident happened were being carried out according to the project that had been changed two months earlier. Then, against all protocols, the construction of another room with fresh air near the excavation was stopped.

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

When she finished her 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 were hoping that the truth would come out about who was responsible for the death of their loved ones.

However, thy faced only disappointment.

Waiting for answers

Journalists and families of the miners who were killed huddled together in at the Aleksinac Cultural Center. Eleven months had passed since the accident, but they still hadn’t received any answers to questions about responsibility for the accident. The prosecutor had twice already refused to initiate criminal proceedings. The last time, during the Christmas holidays this year, the families received a notice that the criminal complaint against the now former minister Mihajlović had been rejected.

Because of this, the families’ attorney organized a press conference, where he announced an appeal against the prosecutor’s decision.

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

Attorney of the miners’ families at a press conference; photo: CINS

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

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

The youngest among them is Lav.

When she looks at him, Dragana still 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 fateful date – 1 April.

Others keep telling her that she needs to move on and that accidents happen. However, she cannot accept this. It won’t happen again in her family.

She can already promise herself one thing – she will do everything in her power to prevent Lav from following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a miner.


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