Hopes fade for 18 trapped Turkish miners

Zeynep Tokal (right), the wife of one of 18 trapped miners, waits at the entrance of the coal mine shaft on Oct 29, 2014, as search and rescue teams work at the site in Karaman. Hopes faded on Wednesday of finding alive any of 18 Turkish coal miners
Zeynep Tokal (right), the wife of one of 18 trapped miners, waits at the entrance of the coal mine shaft on Oct 29, 2014, as search and rescue teams work at the site in Karaman. Hopes faded on Wednesday of finding alive any of 18 Turkish coal miners trapped when their shaft was engulfed by water, as rescue workers made last-ditch efforts to find survivors. -- PHOTO: AFP 

ISTANBUL (AFP) -  Hopes faded on Wednesday of finding alive any of 18 Turkish coal miners trapped when their shaft was engulfed by water, as rescue workers made last-ditch efforts to find survivors.

The accident in southern Turkey was the latest to hit the country's disaster-prone mining industry after 301 workers were killed in a coal mine explosion in May.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said divers had entered the flooded mine in the province of Karaman but visibility was poor and they were unable to go more than a few metres deep for their own safety.

"Every moment that goes by is bad for our (trapped) workers. Time is working against us. With every passing minute, our hopes are reduced," he said in comments broadcast by Turkish television.

He said an estimated 10-12 tonnes of water had filled the shaft at the privately-owned mine in the village of Pamuklu.

In a poignant development, Turkish media reported that the wife of one of the trapped miners, named as Huseyin Gultekin, had given birth to his baby son on Tuesday.

The accident has cast a huge shadow over Wednesday's Republic Day celebrations to mark the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was travelling to the scene after cancelling a planned lavish reception for the holiday at his new presidential palace in Ankara.

But he insisted there was still a chance of finding the miners alive.

"Our expectations and our hopes have not been lost. Our friends and ministers are continuing to work and make efforts there," he said in comments broadcast by state television.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also visited the scene, vowing that anyone guilty of wrongdoing would be brought to responsibility and saying he shared the pain of the families.

The 18 miners were believed to be trapped in a flooded shaft more than 300m underground.

At least 34 workers were underground at the time of the accident on Tuesday but 16 escaped unscathed.

Rescue workers have been seeking to reduce the water levels by pumping out the water with a gigantic pipe. But the levels had continued to rise until finally starting to fall in the night.

Yildiz confirmed there had been no contact with any of the trapped miners and over a day has now passed since the disaster struck.

A special water pump truck known as an Ahtapot (Octopus) that had been despatched to the scene by the Istanbul authorities tipped over on its way there, leaving three of its crew injured.

The reason for the road accident was unclear and another similar truck was later sent to the scene.

The disaster took place when a build-up of water caused the walls of the shaft to collapse but officials have been unable to explain what caused the accumulation of water.

It has reignited concerns over lax safety in a country with the highest rate of workplace fatalities in Europe, according to the International Labour Organisation.

The government has made every effort to show it is on top of the situation, after bitter criticism of its handling of the Soma disaster.

Davutoglu said the government was planning a major meeting on occupational accidents and admitted the mining industry had to improve its standards.

"In many of our mines, the proper technological infrastructure is lacking," Davutoglu said in televised comments. "Rapid modernisation is needed. We will do our best in this area."

The Soma disaster sparked a wave of fury against Erdogan, who was accused of indifference to the plight of the victims.

He notoriously appeared then to play down the tragedy by saying such catastrophes were part of the job and comparing it to mining disasters in early industrial 19th-century Britain.