Despite vow never to go underground, miner faces return to pit as job options run out
Zhang Jianyong , one of the 108 miners who rushed to the surface before the Wangjialing Coal Mine flooded in March, says his children have begged him not to work underground again.
He made a similar resolution himself after fleeing the disaster, which trapped 153 miners, 38 of whom died. But now he's having second thoughts, because there are not many other employment options in the south of Shanxi province.
Zhang says that as he ran out of the mine: 'I told myself that I would never work underground if I succeeded in escaping unscathed. I was so scared, especially when I thought about fellow miners trapped underground. I could imagine how dire the situation would be for their family if they died. The whole family would collapse overnight if the sole breadwinner died.'
Zhang was alerted to the disaster a few minutes after a blackout at around 1pm on March 28, when another miner rushed past, screaming that the pit was flooding.
'I did not believe him when I heard it the first time,' Zhang said. 'I thought the guy was joking until I heard someone else screaming the same thing.
'Then I didn't hesitate any more. I just stood up and ran for my life. I shouted to alert other miners working underground as I rushed to the exit.'
Zhang got to the surface at around 2pm and was home half an hour later.
'My 17-year-old son and my 14-year-old daughter told me with tearful eyes that they had been very scared,' Zhang said. 'They said they would rather have their spending slashed than let me go to work underground.'
He said tens of thousands of workers had lost their jobs and any hope of making a living following a crackdown two years ago on small, unlicensed mines.
Zhang said he had to send connections gifts of wine and cigarettes to land the job at the Wangjialing mine. If he had not, the vacancy would have been filled by one of the younger men in the area.
Zhang's wife, Li Raoju , said that in their home village of Beisangyu, about seven kilometres from the mine, more than 90 per cent of households relied on income from coal mines. She said it had been much easier to find a job when the small mines were still operating.
Li said the family had to find nearly 10,000 yuan a year to pay for the education of their two children and take care of her 72-year-old mother-in-law.
'We depend on my husband to meet all the expenses of our family,' she said.
Zhang said he was very nervous after his narrow escape and had agonised over his career prospects for days.
'But I failed to find a way out,' he said. 'If I go the coastal regions to make a living, I'm afraid my chances of securing a good job are extremely slim.
'I will try to find work outside the pit. If I fail to find such a job, for the sake of supporting my family, I'll be forced to risk my life and work underground again.'