Company admits there was no refuge chamber in Soma mine, but vows to continue operations
Soma Holding head Ali Gürkan is seen during a press conference May 16, three days after the deadly disaster. AA Photo
The operator of the Soma mine has denied any negligence in the worst mining disaster in Turkey’s history, while admitting that a refuge chamber that could have saved lives had not yet been constructed. Nevertheless, Soma Holding head Alp Gürkan vowed to continue operating the mine after “shortcomings are addressed” in the wake of the May 13 disaster.
“There was no negligence on our side. I have worked in mines for 20 years, and I did not witness such an incident [here on May 13],” said Akın Çelik, the operating manager of the Soma Coal Mining Company, during a press conference May 16.
Asked if the company would continue to operate the mine, Gürkan said: "Of course. After all the measures are taken and the missing room [for the refuge chamber] is built, this operation will continue. Legally, we don't have an obligation to build a refuge chamber. But we would have completed it in three-four months if this accident hadn’t happened."
No refuge chamber, but escape point
The officials have admitted that there was no refuge chamber in the mine, but added that there was an escape point close to ground level, allowing workers to exit without walking the 300 meters to the main entrance.
When the facility was first established, there was one refuge room that could host 500 people at the center of the mine, but it was closed when production ended in that area of the mine.
As the production area was moved to a deeper part of the mine, preparations were underway to build refuge rooms there, according to the executives.
If the accident had happened three or four months later, the construction of refuge rooms would have been finished and the workers would have survived, the company claimed.
Reason remains unknown
Officials have accepted that they do not know the reason of the accident, describing the fire as being technically inexplicable.
The cause of the fire was heated coal, and no flames erupted at a power distribution unit in the mine, they said.
“The incident happened in three to five minutes. The gas filled everywhere in five minutes,” Çelik added.
Gürkan, also said they had made the necessary investments to ensure the safety of workers. “We have spent our income to improve working conditions to avoid possible accidents,” Gürkan said, while refusing to answer questions from journalists.
“I am in severe pain. People who know me would understand,” he said, noting that he had health issues.
Çelik also confirmed that there were 787 workers inside the mine when the disaster occurred. He said that 363 workers managed to escape the mine after the accident, while another 122 were rescued injured and transferred to nearby hospitals.
Çelik also confirmed a previous statement by Energy Minister Taner Çelik who said 18 miners remained trapped inside the mine.
Officals have declined to provide a list of the 787 workers, saying they do not have the authority to release it publicly as all data has been delivered to Turkey’s disaster agency, AFAD.
No child workers
Another senior company official, Celalletin Gökaşan, has categorically rejected claims that they employed child workers or subcontracted workers.
“There are no foreign, minor or subcontracted workers,” Gökaşan said, answering to widespread criticism about the company’s alleged mismanagement of the mine.
Cemal Yıldız, who perished in the disaster, was originally said to be 15, but his family subsequently revealed that he was 19 at the time of death. According to Yıldız’s Facebook account, however, he started working in the mines in 2011, meaning he had been employed illegally at the age of 16.
Along with the compensation required by law, plans are being put in place to support the families of the victims, Gürkan said.
While the scale of the project is yet to be determined, the company will cover the education tuition of the victims’ children and other costs, Gürkan added.
The Soma coal mine, which is the region’s biggest facility employing up to 6,500 workers, was privatized at the end of the 1970s.