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Turkish rescuers race to save trapped miners, 205 dead

14 May 2014, 16:21

SOMA, Turkey, May 14, 2014 (AFP) -Rescuers battled Wednesday to reach potentially hundreds of workers trapped after an explosion at a mine in western Turkey that has killed at least 205 people in one of the country's worst ever industrial disasters.

As Turkey declared three days of national mourning for the victims, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz warned the toll would likely rise, making it the country's deadliest ever mining accident.

"The problem is more serious than we thought. It is developing into an accident with the highest worker death toll Turkey has seen so far," he told reporters.

"We are worried that human loss could increase."

Yildiz said 205 miners had been confirmed dead after Tuesday's blast at the mine at Soma, in Manisa province, most of them poisoned by carbon monoxide.

He declined to say how many people remained trapped in the mine, saying there was some uncertainty over the figures provided by the mining company.

Earlier reports said 787 workers were underground when the blast occurred and Turkey's disaster management agency AFAD said 93 people had been rescued, 85 of them injured.

Nurettin Akcul, head of Turkey's mining union, told AFP there were between 100 and 150 people still in the mine.

"We are doing all we can to bring out those who are still underground... there are another 100 to 150 people down there," he said.

Only a handful of miners were seen pulled from the collapsed mine on Wednesday morning, many of them already dead, an AFP reporter at the scene said. One emerged wearing an oxygen mask and was immediately rushed to hospital.

As victims were taken away on stretchers, friends and relative desperate for news of their loved ones tried to pull away the sheets covering their corpses.

Most sat silently on benches, their faces blank with shock, while others scoured a list of the wounded posted up on a wall alongside the name of the hospital they were taken to.

One young woman, Bahar Galici, stared at the sheet of paper before walking away. "Still nothing," she sighed.

Harun Unzar, a colleague of the missing miners said he had lost a friend previously "but this is enormous."

"All the victims are our friends," he said as he wept.

"We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it's very bad," he added.

- 'Tragic accident' -

Explosions and cave-ins are common in Turkey, particularly in private mines, where safety regulations are often flouted.

Turkey's worst mining accident happened in 1992 when 263 workers were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in Zonguldak.

Soma, home to a large mining community, is around 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of Istanbul.

Tuesday's explosion was believed to have been triggered by a faulty electrical transformer at around 1230 GMT on Tuesday.

A security source told AFP there were pockets in the mine, one of which was open so rescuers were able to reach the workers, but the second was blocked with workers trapped inside.

Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft for those who remained trapped some two kilometres (one mile) below the surface and four kilometres from the entrance.

Cemile Dag, a woman in her 50s, said she had been waiting since Tuesday afternoon for news of three relatives trapped underground, including her grandson and her nephew.

"All three were working in the same pit... I couldn't get any news on the telephone so I came here," she said.

Energy Minister Yildiz promised the government would "not turn a blind eye" to negligence. "We will do whatever necessary, including all administrative and legal steps," he said.

The mining company Soma Komur said it had taken maximum measures to ensure safety.

"The accident happened despite maximum safety measures and inspections, but we have been able to take prompt action," it said.

- 'Hopes fading' -

Turkey's ministry of labour and social security said the mine was last inspected on March 17 and was found to comply with safety regulations.

But Oktay Berrin, a miner, said workers were not protected underground.

"There is no security in this mine," he told AFP.

"The unions are just puppets and our management only cares about money."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul both cancelled foreign trips to travel to Soma.

Erdogan expressed his "heartfelt condolences" to the families of those who died.

"Some of the workers have been rescued and I hope we will be able to rescue the others," he said in Ankara.

Yildiz said 400 workers were involved in the rescue effort, which was complicated by fire and toxic gases in the mine.

"I must say that our hopes about rescue efforts inside (the mine) are fading," he added.

The miners are all thought to have gas masks, but it was not clear how long they would last.

Soma is one of the key centres for lignite coal mining in Turkey, a district with a population of around 100,000 where the mines and a lignite-fired thermal power plant are the main economic activity.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the European Union was "ready to assist Turkey in any way it may require in this difficult moment".


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