Coal mine disaster toll at 282, 150 trapped
DESMOND BUTLER AND SUZAN FRASER
A Turkish minister says rescue teams have recovered eight more victims from a coal mine in western Turkey, raising the death toll in Turkey’s worst mining accident to 282.
Even as hopes for some 150 other miners trapped underground faded, Taner Yildiz told reporters Thursday that rescue efforts were focusing on two areas inside the mine.
Yildiz said a fire was still blazing inside the mine, hindering the operation.
The government has said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion and 363 were rescued, including scores who were injured.
Turkey’s four worker unions have called for a nationwide, one-day strike on Thursday (local time) in protest against the nation’s worst industrial disaster that killed at least 282 people in a coal mine in western Turkey.
Unions are furious over what they say are poor safety standards since the formerly state-run facilities were leased to private companies.
‘‘Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the very start by being forced to work in brutal production processes in order to achieve maximum profits,’’ a statement from the said, referring to the area in western Turkey where the disaster happened.
Tensions were high on Wednesday (local time) as hundreds of relatives and miners jostled outside the coal mine waiting for news, countered by a heavy police presence. Rows of women wailed uncontrollably, men knelt sobbing and others just stared in disbelief as rescue workers removed a steady stream of bodies throughout the night and early morning. Others shouted at Turkish officials as they passed by.
In downtown Soma, protesters mostly in their teens and 20s faced off against riot police on Wednesday afternoon in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters. Police had gas masks and water cannons.
Many in the crowd expressed anger at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Rocks were thrown at the police, who chased down some of the protesters. Other protesters shouted that Erdogan was a "murderer!" and a "thief!"
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away from scores of injured miners.
In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company that owns the mine, Soma Holding. In the capital, Ankara, police dispersed a group who tried to march to the energy ministry to protest the deaths, the Dogan news agency reported.
Erdogan had warned that some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit the government. Erdogan himself is widely expected to run for president in elections in August, although he has not yet announced his candidacy.
Erdogan had declared three days of national mourning and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff after the tragedy struck Tuesday. He postponed a foreign trip to visit the mine in Soma, about 250 kilometres south of Istanbul.
"Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out," he said of those still trapped. "That is what we are waiting for."
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit and the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. The prime minister promised the tragedy would be investigated to its "smallest detail" and that "no negligence will be ignored."
Erdogan discussed rescue operations with authorities, walked near the entrance of the mine and comforted two crying women. He has appeared less-than-sympathetic in the past, however, saying that death was part of the "profession's fate" after 30 miners died in a 2010 accident.
Turkey's Labour and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March of 2014, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected. But the country's main opposition party said Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Tuesday's explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside than usual.
A statement from the mining company, Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS, said rescuers were still trying to vent out the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the mine and pump in clean air.
The company said investigation into what caused the fire was underway and an announcement on its likely cause would come after the fire was completely under control.
Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
At the mine early ib Wednesday, rescue workers slowly emerged carrying stretchers with bodies covered in blankets. The corpses' faces were as black as the coal they worked on daily.
One man, who declined to be named, said he had led a 10-man team about a kilometer (half-mile) down the mine into the tunnels and had recovered three bodies. But his men had to flee because of smoke from coal set alight by the explosion, he said.
Another man walked weeping down the stairs from the mine's entrance. Behind him, two groups carrying heavy stretchers pushed through the crowd like caterpillars.
As the bodies were brought out on stretchers, rescue workers pulled blankets back so crowds of anxious family members could get a chance to identify victims. One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognised one of the dead, and police had to restrain him from climbing into an ambulance with the body.
One injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.
Emine Gulsen was in a group of women who sat wailing near the entrance to the mine. Her son, Mehmet Gulsen, 31, has been working in the mine for five years.
"My son is gone! My Mehmet," she cried.
But Mehmet Gulsen's aunt, Makbule Dag, still held out hope.
"Inshallah" (God willing), she said.