At least 282 workers die in coal mine accident, three days of mourning is declared

At least 282 workers die in coal mine accident, three days of mourning is declared

At least 282 workers die in coal mine accident, three days of mourning is declared

Trapped workers are pulled from a mine following the explosion of a power distribution unit underground in Soma, in the western Turkish province of Manisa, on May 13. AFP Photo / Bülent Kılıç

Some 245 coal miners were killed in a mine in the western province of Manisa's Soma district on May 13 after a fire broke out following an explosion at a power distribution unit, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said. Emergency teams continue their efforts to rescue workers, but hopes are diminishing for the safety of hundreds who still remain trapped in the mine.

The government declared three days of national mourning on May 14 over the mining disaster. Flags across the country are being flown at half-mast while the upcoming Youth and Sports Day celebrations on May 19 have also been reduced to just one main ceremony. President Abdullah Gül has cancelled his official visit to China and will go to Soma on May 15.

Most of the victims died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to officials.

"We are moving toward the worst mining disaster in Turkey," Yıldız said on May 14, as over 300 workers are feared to be still trapped inside, according to reports.

But a high degree of uncertainty still remains regarding the exact number of workers trapped inside the mine.

Responding to questions on how many workers were still trapped in the mine, Yıldız warned that they only had the numbers given by the private firm. In an earlier statement at midnight, Yıldız said that 787 workers were inside the mine when the fire broke out.

Yıldız said some of the injured were "people from outside the mine," which, he added, created more concerns. In the initial reports after the accident, it was said that between 200 and 300 workers were in the mine, but subsequent reports suggest there were far more miners present in the facility.

The accident and the massive number of deaths have sparked widespread anger as many denounced the insufficiency of safety measures, accusing the government and mine companies of "negligence." Protests, including a demonstration outside mine owner Soma Kömür İşletmeleri A.Ş. in Istanbul's Levent neighborhood scheduled for 12:30 p.m., are planned for around the country during the day and into the evening.

"The mining accident that we have seen at this private facility today is truly a work-related murder of the highest degree. We are currently facing the worst work-related murder in the country's history," said the former head of miners' union Maden-İş, Çetin Uygur.

The head of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), Kani Beko, said there were a large number of subcontracted workers present in the mine. "There are second- and third-tier subcontractors working in this mine. I hope that the death toll will not climb further, but I am not optimistic. There is a massacre that happened following the explosion inside," Beko said.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who reportedly canceled a scheduled trip to Albania on May 14, has traveled to Soma to follow rescue works. Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has also announced that he will travel to Soma. Kılıçdaroğlu has urged for a calm assessment of the massive loss of life in the disaster, before leaving Ankara on May 14.

Erdoğan said rescue operations were launched as soon as the news of the accident emerged in his first remarks following the mine explosion.

"Hopefully, we will receive clearer and comforting news in the coming hours,” Erdoğan said during an event in Istanbul. President Abdullah Gül, meanwhile, reportedly called Manisa Gov. Abdurrahman Savaş to urge full mobilization for the rescue efforts.

At least one air ambulance and 27 normal ambulances were dispatched to the scene, according to CNNTürk. A cold storage warehouse for locally produced melons has been transformed into a makeshift morgue near the mine.

On April 29, the CHP reportedly submitted a motion to Parliament to investigate work-related accidents at the mine in Soma, only for the proposal to be rejected with votes from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The CHP, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) have dispatched delegations to the site.

Fire causes power failure

The mine's operator, the Soma Coal Mining Company, also confirmed in a statement late May 13 that the accident had caused casualties. It also said that the last inspection carried out only two months ago found nothing contrary to the regulations in the mine facility. The statement did not provide any further detail regarding the exact number of workers trapped in the mine.

The accident occurred two kilometers underneath the surface, provoking a power cut which caused the mine's elevator to stop working.

A group of 20 workers were rushed to the hospital following the first intervention of rescue teams, District Gov. Mehmet Bahattin Atçı said during a live broadcast on the NTV television station. Atçı also said there was intense smoke in the mine that was hindering the rescue effort.

Hundreds of the reported 787 miners in the mine remain trapped around four kilometers from the exit for hours, Yıldız said. Some 6,500 workers are employed in the privately owned mine, which is also the largest mine in the region.

Top European officials sent their condelences over the disaster. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said he was shocked by the accident and expressed his hope for the rescue. “My condolences and thoughts go to the families and to all affected by this tragedy,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland also expressed his condolences. "I am deeply shocked by the catastrophic accident in Soma and extend my sincere condolences to the victims' families. We at the Council of Europe are thinking of our Turkish friends today and share in your mourning," Jagland said in a statement.

Turkey is no stranger to mining disasters, with accidents frequently resulting in loss of life. Turkey's worst mining disaster occurred when a methane explosion killed at least 263 workers in the northwestern province of Zonguldak in 1992. Unions have long criticized the government for failing to supervise mining activities, particularly with regard to subcontracting firms that are accused of employing workers with little training.

The head of Soma Holding's board of directors, Alp Gürkan, told daily Hürriyet in 2012 that greater privatizations in the mining sector had allowed the company to make more money, but many have accused mining companies of earning better profits at the cost of safety to their workers.

After 30 miners died in Zonguldak on May 17, 2010, then-Labor and Social Security Minister Ömer Dinçer attracted anger by saying those killed had died "beautifully."

"On the first 19 miners, there were no signs of burns – they died beautifully," he said on a TV program after the disaster. "The mining workers have been delivered to their families, and the families are at peace."

Visiting Zonguldak after the May 2010 disaster, Erdoğan said "[death] is the fate of this profession."