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Hopes fade for survivors, as Turkish mine fire kills 238

Hopes faded of finding more survivors in a coal mine in western Turkey on Wednesday, where 238 workers were confirmed killed and 120 more still feared to be trapped in what is likely to prove the nation's worst ever industrial disaster.

Anger over the deadly fire at the mine about 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul echoed across a country that has seen a decade of rapid economic growth but still suffers from one of the world's worst workplace safety records.

An injured miner came out carried by rescuers, on May 13, 2014 after an explosion in a coal mine in Manisa.
Bulent Kilic |AFP | Getty Images
An injured miner came out carried by rescuers, on May 13, 2014 after an explosion in a coal mine in Manisa.

Opponents blamed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government for ignoring repeated warnings about the safety of the country's mines.

"We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain," Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site, at which he gave the figures for those confirmed dead and still thought missing. But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine.

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"Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world," he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.

Fire knocked out power and shut down ventilation shafts and elevators shortly after 3 pm (1200 GMT) on Tuesday. After an all-night rescue effort, emergency workers pumped oxygen into the mine to try to keep those trapped alive. Thousands of family members and co-workers gathered outside the town's hospital searching for information on their loved ones.

"We haven't heard anything from any of them, not among the injured, not among the list of dead," said one elderly woman, Sengul, whose two nephews worked in the mine along with the sons of two of her neighbours.

"It's what people do here, risking their lives for two cents ... They say one gallery in the mine has not been reached, but it's almost been a day," she said.

The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said late on Tuesday 787 workers were in the mine at the time.

Initial reports suggested an electrical fault caused the blaze but Mehmet Torun, a board member and former head of the Chamber of Mining Engineers who was at the scene, said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine's tunnels and galleries.

"They are ventilating the shafts but carbon monoxide kills in 3 or 5 minutes," he told Reuters by telephone.

"Unless we have a major miracle, we shouldn't expect anyone to emerge alive at this point," he said, pointing to an outside chance that workers may have found air pockets to survive.

Deadliest ever

The disaster highlighted Turkey's poor record on worker safety and drew renewed opposition calls for an inquiry into a drop in safety standards at previously state-run mines. The International Labour Organization ranked the EU candidate nation third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.

Erdogan earlier declared three days of national mourning and cancelled an official visit to Albania. President Abdullah Gul also cancelled a trip to China scheduled for Thursday in order to travel to Soma.

"We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey," Yildiz told reporters, adding that "hopes were dimming" of finding many more survivors.

A pall of smoke hung above the area and Yildiz said the fire was still burning underground, hampering the rescue operation.

Some 93 people were rescued, including several rescuers who had themselves become trapped or overcome by fumes, and 85 were being treated for their injuries, Turkey's disaster management agency AFAD said in an email.

Protests

A cold storage warehouse, usually used for food, and freezer trucks served as makeshift morgues as hospital facilities overflowed. Medical staff intermittently emerged from the hospital to read the names of survivors being treated inside, with families and fellow workers clamouring for information.

"This isn't a huge city. Everyone has neighbours, relatives or friends injured, dead or still trapped. I am trying to prepare my family for the worst," said Hasan Dogan, 27, watching TV news reports from a canteen set up outside the hospital.

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Some 16,000 people from a population of 105,000 in the district of Soma work in the mining industry, according to Erkan Akcay, a local opposition politician.

The district is no stranger to tragedies, but never before on this scale. The words "For those who give a life for a handful of coal" are engraved on the entrance wall to the emergency clinic.

Teams of psychiatrists were being pulled together to help counsel the families of victims. Paramilitary police guarded the entrance to the mine to keep distressed relatives at a safe distance from the rescue effort.

There were calls on social media for protests in front of the Istanbul headquarters of Soma Komur Isletmeleri, the operator of the mine. The company said in a brief statement late on Tuesday that there had been "a grave accident" caused by an explosion in a substation but gave few other details.

Erdogan cancelled a visit to Albania, scheduled for Wednesday, and is instead going to the site of the disaster, his office said. President Abdullah Gul also cancelled a trip to China scheduled for Thursday in order to travel to Soma.

At Istanbul's Taksim Square, two left-wing opposition newspaper vendors read out headlines to silent morning commuters. "Turkey is a graveyard for workers", and "This wasn't an accident, this was negligence."

Poor record

Turkey's rapid growth over the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy demands, with worker safety standards often failing to keep pace.

Its safety record in coal mining has been poor for decades, with its deadliest accident to date in 1992, when a gas blast killed 263 workers in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.

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The Labour Ministry said late on Tuesday its officials had carried out regular inspections at the Soma mine, most recently in March, and that no irregularities had been detected.

But Hursit Gunes, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People's Party, said a previous request for a parliamentary inquiry into safety and working conditions at mines around Soma had been rejected by the ruling AK Party.

"I'm going to renew that parliamentary investigation demand today. If (the government) has been warned about this and they did nothing, then people will be angry, naturally. The opposition warned them. But there's unbelievable lethargy on this issue," Gunes told Reuters.

The ILO in 2012 said Turkey had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world's third-highest. In the mining sector, 61 people died in 2012, according to the ILO's latest statistics. Between 2002 and 2012, the death toll at Turkish mines totalled more than 1,000.

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