ISTANBUL, May 13, 2014: A coal-mine blast in Western Turkey killed at least 166 workers on Tuesday in the nation’s worst mining catastrophe in more than two decades, sparking a massive effort to rescue hundreds of miners still trapped underground and facing the risk of gas poisoning.
The midafternoon explosion at Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS’s mine in the Aegean province of Manisa could result in more deaths, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said early Wednesday from the blast site, where he was monitoring the emergency effort.
Of the 787 miners underground during the explosion, emergency workers evacuated 363, of which 80 were injured, with four in critical condition, he said.
“I fear that our troubles may get bigger in the coming hours,” Mr. Yildiz said in televised comments, adding that most of the miners had been killed by carbon-monoxide poisoning.
The death toll and number of trapped miners, coming about 11 hours after the blast, were significantly higher than earlier official figures of 17 killed and more than 200 stuck underground. Mr. Yildiz rejected criticism that the government wasn’t providing updates efficiently, saying officials were concerned first and foremost with successfully completing the evacuation in a race against time.
President Abdullah Gul ordered Turkey to mobilize all necessary means for the rescue effort. Emergency workers doused the fire and were pumping fresh air into the mine to provide oxygen for the trapped workers, officials said.
The emergency push includes more than 400 rescue workers, Mr. Yildiz said, as Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management presidency, or AFAD, dispatched regional rescue teams and flew in additional support from the country’s biggest coal-mining province, Zonguldak on the Black Sea coast. Representatives of Turkey’s Red Crescent were also arriving in the Aegean province.
Tuesday’s blast and the ensuing fire triggered the worst mining catastrophe in Turkey since 1992, when a pit-gas explosion killed 263 in the country’s deadliest coal mine accident.
More than 3,000 miners have died in Turkey’s coal mines, according to official statistics going back to 1941. Last year, 95 workers were killed in mining accidents, up from 78 in 2012, according to miners union Dev-Maden Sen. Just under a dozen people were killed this year through April, the union said.
It is too soon to determine whether the blast was caused by negligence, Mr. Yildiz said. The Work and Social Security Ministry said it has appointed three inspectors to investigate the blast.
Following a series of accidents and deaths last year in the same Soma region where Tuesday’s accident occurred, Ozgur Ozel, a lawmaker who represents the region with the main opposition Republican People’s Party, in October submitted a proposal to investigate the incidents and identify those responsible. The measure was defeated by the governing Justice and Development Party in the Ankara parliament on April 29.
Soma Komur’s mine was inspected four times in the past two years, officials most recently checking workplace safety and health in mid-March, the Work and Social Security Ministry said. The mine passed the inspections.
The Istanbul-based company has 5,500 employees and is one of the region’s biggest coal producers, with 2.5 million tons mined annually, according to its website. Soma Komur said in a statement that the accident had occurred despite all precautions and would be investigated.
Local television stations showed footage of the entrance to the coal mine, with hundreds of the trapped workers’ relatives gathered in a hopeful vigil as the sun set. Weeping and praying mothers expressed hope that their sons would be spared as news channels broadcast footage of miners covered in grime being evacuated from the site.
“Our hope is that we will have the chance to rescue our remaining brothers,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised remarks from Ankara, while the death toll was still in single digits. The premier canceled a trip to Albania and will travel to Soma on Wednesday.
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