|A miner was rescuedout of the mine in Manisa on May 14, 2014. The death toll of Turkey's coal mine disaster Tuesday has reached 282, making it the country' s worst industrial disaster in history, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said early Thursday. (Xinhua/Lu Zhe)|
SOMA, Turkey, May 15 -- It was a drizzling, pale day in Soma, western Turkey. More than 1,000 rescuers were busy dragging miners trapped underground after a coal mine disaster Tuesday killed at least 282 people.
Four groups of rescue workers in orange and blue uniforms were pumping clean air into the mine to vent out carbon monoxide -- toxic gas that kills in three or five minutes and that is believed to be the main cause of the death of the miners in the country's worst-ever disaster since 1992.
Ambulance siren were resounding in the valley of Soma, about 250 km south of Istanbul, as exhausted rescuers have saved 88 survivors who needed to be sent to hospital immediately.
Every 10 to 15 minutes, a miner was pulled out of the mine, where some places are as deep as more than 400 meters.
Some miners' frightened faces were as black as the coal they worked on daily. Some were lying on the stretcher, wearing an oxygen mask on the blink of death. Some were covered with white cloth, dead.
At the scene of the accident, relatives of the colliers, fatigue with grief after having been waiting for one day and night, were desperate for any news about their loved ones.
Some fainted when they heard the tragedy, some hysterically kept calling the names of their relatives, and still some just sobbed with tears covering their faces.
"My son just retires in two months. But..." An old woman cried, pointing at the mine that buried her son.
On a burial ground near the mine, a dozen men were digging graves. They were praying while burying their work partners and relatives.
The cause of the accident remained unclear. Early reports said an electric fault caused an explosion and fire. But some mining engineers at the scene said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine's tunnels and galleries.
The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Tuesday 787 miners had been in the mine and 363 of them had been rescued so far.
It was estimated that more than 200 coal workers were still trapped in the mine and hopes of finding any survivors were fading.
"Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing," Yildiz told reporters Wednesday.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning and canceled an official visit to Albania. President Abdullah Gul also canceled a trip to China scheduled for Thursday to travel to Soma.
In Soma, Erdogan delivered his condolences to the families of the victims, saying the nation was experiencing "a very great pain."
But he insisted the accident was normal. "Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time," Erdogan said, citing mine accidents in 19th century Britain.
The outrage over the death of the coal miners has sparked anti-government protests Wednesday across the nation with crowds chanting for resignation of the government.
Angry relatives of the victims booed Erdogan, calling for his resignation during his visit to Soma.
Protests spilled over other cities and towns where crowds gathered to express their frustration with the government over what they called lack of effective measures to curb death at workplaces.
Police shut down the access to Gezi Park next to Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square, center of anti-government protests that erupted a year ago. The number of police officers in the square was boosted as police used water cannons and pepper gas to confront protestors.
In the Turkish capital of Ankara, several protests were staged. A group of students from Middle East Technical University who attempted to march toward the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry to protest the death of the colliers was met with police force.
Some people staged a sit-in in Ankara's Guven Park nearby neighborhoods housing many diplomatic buildings.
Protestors also staged rallies in Eskisehir province, northwestern Turkey, as many stood vigil for miners by lighting candles.
Experts say Erdogan, whose government is blamed for lack of effective inspection on companies running coal mines, is enduring unprecedented political pressure. He is widely expected to run for president in the August election.
In Soma, where about 15 percent of the 105,000 population work in the mining industry, the relations between Erdogan and mine leaders were sharply noted. Locals said the wife of the Soma mine's boss reportedly works for Erdogan's party.
The country's main opposition Republican Peoples' Party said Erdogan's ruling party killed a motion for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into a series of accidents at mines around Soma two weeks ago.
Erdogan dismissed the motion on Wednesday, saying that it was just an attempt to block the agenda in the parliament at the time.
Because of poor safety conditions, mining accidents are not uncommon in Turkey, claiming more than 3,000 lives since 1941. The country's previous worst mining disaster was a gas explosion that killed 263 workers in the province of Zonguldak in 1992.
The International Labor Organization 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.