Relatives wait for survivors outside of Soma mine in the western province of Manisa. (Photo: Today’s Zaman)
Istanbul (Today’s Zaman): Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach hundreds of miners trapped underground on Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 245 workers, which might make it the deadliest mining disaster in Turkey’s history if the death toll rises further, which is expected.
Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers south of İstanbul, at the time of the explosion and 363 of them had been rescued so far. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who flew to Soma on Wednesday, put the death toll at 245 people. However, there were at least 300 dead according to unofficial records. Eighty people were confirmed as injured, although at least 141 were injured according to unofficial reports.
During a speech he made at Soma, Erdoğan said imams of the Religious Affairs Directorate will be talking about the slain miners in their Friday sermons. He also said that a parliamentary inquiry proposal submitted by the main opposition party a few weeks ago on Soma was aimed at changing the political agenda. He also said accidents are a usual part of mining business, listing fatal disasters in the world. Erdoğan also warned that there will be segments who might want to use the disaster against his government.
The prime minister was met with protests during his visit to Soma staged by the relatives of the miners. He had to take refuge inside a supermarket to avoid the protesters. Later, he addressed a crowd outside Soma municipality, where a young man who yelled out at him was detained. Others joined the protest following the young man’s detention. The police detained eight people who were relatives of the deceased miners.
Turkey’s worst mining disaster to date was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
A miner who took part in the rescue efforts, Sami Kılıç, said in the late afternoon: “There is still a fire in there. There are galleries that haven’t been entered as of yet. We think there are about 350-400 people in there who still haven’t gotten out.” He said even with oxygen masks, it is hard to survive for more than 45 minutes.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit. Because Soma Madencilik, the company that owns the mine, does not keep entry and exit records, no exact numbers of how many people were trapped inside were available. According to miners, between 700 and 800 workers work in one shift, and the blast happened during a shift change. There was also no clear information on the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen inside the mine.
As bodies were brought out on stretchers, rescue workers pulled blankets back from the faces of the dead to give jostling crowds of anxious family members a chance to identify victims. One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognized one of the dead, and police restrained him from climbing into an ambulance with the body.
Meanwhile, bodies pulled out of the mine were being delivered to grieving families inside a depot used to store melons, to make use of the cold air storage system. Four hundred clerics from nearby districts were on duty to perform funeral services.
Prime Minister Erdoğan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half-staff. He postponed a one-day visit to Albania and planned to visit the Soma mine instead. The last time national mourning was declared was on Jan. 12, 2012, the day Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) founder Rauf Denktaş died.
Rescue efforts were mainly being led by miners, according to Salih Usta, who has been in and out of the mine many times since Tuesday night. “All the bodies are being taken out by miners. There are at least 100 more bodies in there that I have seen with my own eyes. But the conditions are very harsh, there is water up to knee level and there’s mud all over. It takes eight people to pull out one body. We will be carrying out bodies for another three days.”
The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.
Minister Yıldız said the fire was still blazing inside the mine, 18 hours after the blast. The air around the mine swirled with smoke and soot. The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, Yıldız said.
Yıldız said rescue operations were hindered because the mine had not completely been cleared of gas. He said earlier that some of the workers were 420 meters (460 yards) deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers could not use lifts to escape because the explosion had cut off power.
Workers from nearby mines were brought in to join the rescue operation. One 30-year-old man, who declined to give his name, said he rushed to the scene to try to help find his brother who was still missing early Wednesday. He said he was able to make it about 150 meters (500 feet) inside before gasses forced him to retreat. “There is no hope,” he said, with tears in his eyes.
During the night, people cheered and applauded as some trapped workers emerged, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot. Dozens of ambulances drove back and forth to carry the rising number of bodies as well as injured workers.
The Manisa Chief Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation. Chief Prosecutor Durdu Kavak told journalists that nobody had been detained, and the superior who should have been detained had also died along with the workers. “We have been informed that the incident occurred due to a power unit explosion. This is what we have been informed, but the exact cause will come out at the end of the investigation. There are no detentions as of yet. The responsible superiors who would normally be summoned to testify are also dead together with the others.”
Kavak said work inspectors were going to identify the reasons behind the blast and whether there has been any negligence. “Detentions will be made on the basis of the inspectors’ reports. If anybody’s at fault, they will be identified. If the company owner is at fault, he will be held accountable.” Kavak couldn’t provide a certain body count.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away.
Soma Madencilik said the accident occurred, despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls” and added that an investigation was being launched.
“Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones,” the company said in a statement. A few hours later, it shut down its website.
There were protests in different parts of the country against the mining accident. Security was tight in front of the Levent headquarters of the company, with three buses of police officers and one water cannon being deployed in front of the building.
Soma’s population is 102,224 people. About 15,000 people work in the quarries for TL 1,000 to TL 1,500 per month. The depth of the mines range between 300 and 2,000 meters, according to data from Vedat Ünal, the secretary-general of the miners’ union Türkiye Maden İş. Of the 15,000 miners, 12,000 are union members he said. “Every worker has a gas mask. They are the type that generates oxygen, but we don’t know how long they will hold up.”
Last year, eight people died at accidents in the mines in Soma.
Soma Holding reduced costs
CEO of Soma Holding Alp Gürkan had said in an interview published by the Hürriyet daily two years ago that his company had reduced the costs of coal extraction to $23.80 from $130 dollars per ton, after leasing the mine in 2005 from the Turkish Coal Enterprises.
A list of some recent fatal mine disasters around the world:
2014: An explosion and a fire Tuesday kill at least 205 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey and more than 200 miners remained trapped underground.
2013: 83 workers are buried by a massive landslide at a gold mining site in a mountainous area of Tibet, east of Lhasa, according to Chinese state media.
2012: At least 60 people dead after a landslide at a gold mine in a remote corner of northeast Congo.
2011: Fifty-two people are feared dead in southwestern Pakistan after a gas explosion deep in a coal mine in Sorange, near Quetta
2010: 29 men are killed in New Zealand’s worst mining disaster in decades after a huge gas-fueled explosion deep underground ends hopes of rescuing the South Island coal miners, who were caught in a similar blast five days earlier.
2010: 33 miners are rescued after being trapped for 69 days in a gold and copper mine in Chile’s northern Atacama desert.
2010: 29 miners are killed in an explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine.
2007: At least 90 are killed in post-Soviet Ukraine’s worst mining disaster, after a methane blast rips through tunnels deep below ground in a coal mine near the eastern city of Donetsk.
2007: Six miners, three rescuers are killed in collapses at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Emery County, Utah.
2006: 65 coal miners are killed from a gas explosion in San Juan de Sabinas, in northern Mexico’s Coahuila state.
2006: 12 killed in a methane explosion at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia.
2005: 203 miners die and 12 more are missing after an explosion deep in a coal shaft in southwestern China, the government stated in its worst reported mining disaster since communist rule began in 1949. The blast occurred in the Fuxin coal-mining region.