EXPLAINED: The Soma mine disaster in five questions
Government officials, company executives and independent experts are still not sure exactly how the tragedy unfolded, even four days after the deadliest mining accident in Turkey’s history. Here is what we have learned so far, in five questions:
1) Where is the Soma coal mine?
Soma is near the western Turkish city of Manisa, 95 kilometers from İzmir on the Aegean coast, Turkey’s third largest metropolis. The mine had previously been considered one of the safest in the country. Soma Mining Inc., the company that operates the mine, recently boasted in the media about employing the most “cutting-edge” technology in the Soma coal field. The entrance of the mine lies southwest of the field, while the town of Soma is in northeast.
It was only learned after the disaster that the mining facility had previously misinformed the public about the safety standards and technology employed at the mine. For instance, we now know that the mine had no functional safe rooms and it was only partly mechanized. Only Gallery A (not shown on the graph below) had crushing and cutting machines to mine the coal, while the P, R and S gallery blocks, or panels, were operated by manual labor. All coal was carried to the surface with belt conveyors.
3) Where and how did the accident happen?
This is a mine with an inclined shaft (desandre), which means that the miners have to walk down a ramp into the mine without elevators. The deepest point (vertically) is at 450 meters. The total distance from the entrance to the exit is 4,500 meters. Everything started with a fire about 2,000 meters from the entrance, at a depth of 150 meters. The Prime Ministry Disaster & Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) initially announced that a power distribution unit was the cause of the fire, but the company denied it on May 16, stressing that the source had not been determined beyond doubt.
4) How did hundreds of workers get trapped and die in the mine?
The fire was closer to the exit than most workers. Hundreds of miners followed the emergency instructions when they saw the smoke and went deeper into the mine, hoping that oxygen will be pumped toward that way. However, as more oxygen could fan the flames, fresh air was pumped from the other direction. It took two hours for the fresh air to fill most galleries. A local official claimed the workers who violated the emergency rules and rush to the exit survived. After all, the miners’ oxygen masks only lasted for an hour. Even after three days, sensors were still reading levels of carbon monoxide in Gallery S at 502 bpi, a level that is enough to kill a person. Some workers were just 3-5 minutes from the exit, but were not able to walk through the smoke with less and less oxygen. Most workers died at a depth of 150 meters near Gallery S, some of them were buried on May 15, leaving behind newborns:
5) Who are responsible for the worst mining accident in Turkey’s history?
Firstly, the company, and then, the authorities, are being criticized most. Mehmet Utkan, the Soma mine’s underground safety engineer who was off-duty when the accident happened, told Bilgi University’s news website Habervesaire.com that old, non-fireproofed material was used in the electrical system of the mine. He criticized the company for “prioritizing production over safety.” Inspections were reportedly superficial, while expert warnings and parliamentary actions were ignored by the Turkish government. The government is being slammed for issuing a licence to this company and not providing a tight enough legal framework for safety. It has also come under fire for the botched rescue operation.
Soma Holding head Ali Gürkan is seen during a controversial press conference May 16, three days after the deadly disaster. AA Photo