Turkish rescue workers battled flames and methane gas to try to save miners still trapped underground after a fire in a coal shaft that has emerged as the country’s worst mining disaster.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz put the latest death toll at the mine in the western town of Soma at 274, in a statement late yesterday. The fire broke out on May 13, and Yildiz said emergency services haven’t been able to extinguish it, according to Haberturk newspaper. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier that about 120 workers are thought to remain trapped.
Protesters blaming the government for failing to ensure safety standards surrounded Erdogan’s car during his visit to Soma yesterday, at one point forcing the premier to take shelter in a nearby shop, Hurriyet newspaper said. There were also protests in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and police used tear gas to disperse crowds.
Anguished relatives waited outside the mine, which is owned by the Soma Group, for news. Health-care officials used loudspeakers to announce the rescue of injured miners and provide details on their hospital transfer, NTV television footage from the area showed.
The death toll was heading “toward the highest loss of workers’ lives in an accident in Turkey,” Yildiz said. The country’s worst previous mining accident took place in 1992, when 263 miners were killed in a gas explosion in Kozlu in the northwest.
The mine disaster has added to Erdogan’s woes at a time when he and his government are battling corruption allegations. The prime minister warned “extremists” against taking advantage of the accident.
“Everyone should be assured that this accident will be investigated to the smallest detail,” Erdogan said, adding that a period of national mourning period has been declared. “We won’t allow any negligence to be ignored. We will get to the bottom of the incident and take steps to satisfy the public.”
The U.S. is ready to assist the Turkish government as needed, White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. “On behalf of the American people, we extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and our best wishes for the safe exit of the remaining miners,” Carney said in an e-mailed statement.
The Soma mine is owned by Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS, part of the Soma Group, which describes itself as Turkey’s biggest underground coal miner. The company said in an e-mailed statement that an explosion at a power distribution unit started the blaze, and the cause of the accident is under investigation.
Alp Gurkan, the owner of Soma Holding, told Hurriyet in 2012 that the company had cut mining costs well below the levels estimated by the state coal company, and was still profitable.
The mine has been regularly inspected and no violation of safety regulations was observed in the latest inspection less than a month ago, the official Anadolu news agency said, citing the Labor Ministry.
Safety conditions at the mines in Soma were discussed in Turkey’s parliament as recently as last month, Ozgur Ozel, a lawmaker from Manisa province, where the mine is located, said on May 13.
Ozel said a proposal to create a mine safety commission, which was backed by his Republican People’s Party and other opposition groups, was rejected by Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. Erdogan dismissed the allegation, and said his party won’t allow the accident to be exploited by the opposition.
“As Manisa’s members of parliament, we’re sick of going to miners’ funerals,” Ozel said.