Death toll in Turkey mine explosion reaches 238, with 120 still missing
Rescuers racing to rescue survivors, as carbon monoxide poisoning claims hundreds of miners' lives
Associated Press in Soma, Turkey
The death toll in a coal mine disaster in western Turkey rose to 238 on Wednesday, with 80 more injured, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.
"According to the first indications, 238 of our workers lost their lives and 80 were injured," Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the mine in Soma, about 480 kilometres southwest of Istanbul.
Watch: Teams race to rescue Turkish trapped miners after blast
Around 120 workers were still thought to be trapped in a coal mine in western Turkey where 238 miners were killed after a fire, in one of the country’s worst ever industrial disasters, Erdogan added.
Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground on Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killing dozeons, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometres south of Istanbul, at the time of the explosion and 363 of them had been rescued so far.
Watch: Deadly Turkey mine collapse leaves hundreds killed and trapped
“Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz said.
Turkey’s worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
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 recognised one of the dead, and police restrained him from climbing into an ambulance with the body.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half mast. Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania and planned to visit Soma instead.
Fifty-seven people were confirmed as injured, Yildiz told reporters in Soma, where he was overseeing operations by more than 400 rescuers. Earlier he had put the injured total at 80, including four in serious condition.
The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which probably raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.
The minister 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, Yildiz said.
An injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.
Yildiz said rescue operations were hindered because the mine had not completely been cleared of gas.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.
Yildiz said earlier that some of the workers were 420 metres 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 on Wednesday. He said he was able to make it about 150 metres 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.
Emine Gulsen, part of a group of women who sat wailing near the entrance to the mine, chanted in song, “My son is gone, my Mehmet.” Her son, Mehmet Gulsen, 31, has been working in the mine for five years.
Mehmet Gulsen’s aunt, Makbule Dag, held out hope. “Inshallah” (God willing), she said.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds at bay.
SOMA Komur Isletmeleri, which owns the mine, 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.
Turkey’s Labour and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March of this year, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.
The country’s main opposition party said that Erdogan’s ruling party had recently voted down a proposal for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small scale accidents at mines around Soma.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.
Death below ground: Major mining disasters of recent years
2014 An explosion and a fire kill at least 238 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey.
2013 Eighty-three workers buried by a massive landslide at a gold mining site in a mountainous area of Tibet, east of Lhasa.
2012 At least 60 people dead after a landslide at a gold mine in northeast Congo.
2011 Fifty-two people dead after a gas explosion deep in a coal mine in Sorange, Pakistan.
2010 Twenty-nine miners killed after a huge gas explosion deep underground ends hopes of rescuing workers trapped by another blast five days previously in a coal mine on New Zealand's South Island.
2010 Thirty-three miners rescued after being trapped for 69 days in a gold and copper mine in Chile's northern Atacama desert.
2010: Twenty-nine miners killed in an explosion in the US state of West Virginia.
2007 At least 90 miners 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.
2006 Sixty-five coal miners killed in a gas explosion at a nine in San Juan de Sabinas, in northern Mexico's Coahuila state.
2005 More than 200 miners die in an explosion deep in a coal shaft in the Fuxin region of southwestern China, the worst reported mining disaster since communist rule began in 1949.