Hopes fading as rescuers search for hundreds trapped in Turkey mine blast

People stand in front of a hospital as they wait for news of relatives on May 14, 2014 in Soma. Turkey's energy minister said on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, the chances of finding survivors from a coal mine explosion were diminishing. -- PHOTO: AFP
People stand in front of a hospital as they wait for news of relatives on May 14, 2014 in Soma. Turkey's energy minister said on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, the chances of finding survivors from a coal mine explosion were diminishing. -- PHOTO: AFP

SOMA, Turkey (AFP) - Turkey's energy minister said on Wednesday the chances of finding survivors from a coal mine explosion were diminishing.

"I must say that our hopes about rescue efforts inside (the mine) are fading," Mr Taner Yildiz said in televised remarks.

At least 201 people were killed and hundreds more trapped at the mine in Manisa province. More than 300 were rescued.

The explosion was believed to have been triggered by a faulty electrical transformer.

Mr Yildiz said fires and the risk of toxic carbon monoxide were hampering rescue efforts.

A security source told AFP that there were pockets in the mine, one of which was open so that rescuers were able to reach the workers, but the second was blocked with workers trapped inside.

Hundreds of people gathered around the explosion site as rescuers brought out injured workers, who were coughing and struggling to breathe due to the dust.

Sena Isbiler, mother of one of the miners, stood on top of piles of wood, craning her neck to see who was being led out of the mine.

"I have been waiting for my son since early afternoon," she told AFP. "I haven't heard anything about him yet."

Arum Unzar, a colleague of the missing miners, said he had lost a friend previously "but this is enormous."

"All the victims are our friends," he said as he wept. "We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it's very bad," he added.

Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft for those who remained trapped some two kilometres below the surface and four kilometres from the entrance. Late on Tuesday evening, injured people were still emerging from the collapsed mine - some walking, others being carried by rescue workers while being given oxygen.

Nearby, security officers tried to keep ambulance routes clear to ensure help could reach the victims.

The mining company Soma Komur issued a statement, saying the mine had taken maximum measures to ensure safety. "Unfortunately, some of our workers have lost their lives in this tragic accident," the statement said.

"The accident happened despite maximum safety measures and inspections, but we have been able to take prompt action," it added.

Mr Yildiz promised the government would "not turn a blind eye" to negligence. "We will do whatever necessary, including all administrative and legal steps," he said.

Turkey's ministry of labour and social security said the mine was last inspected on March 17 and was found to be compliant with safety regulations.

But Oktay Berrin, a miner, said workers were not protected underground. "There is no security in this mine," he told AFP. "The unions are just puppets and our management only cares about money."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office said he would arrive in Soma on Wednesday after cancelling a trip to Albania. Speaking in Ankara, the leader expressed his "heartfelt condolences" to the families of those who died.

"Some of the workers have been rescued and I hope we will be able to rescue the others," Mr Erdogan said.

Mr Yildiz told journalists in Soma that a team of 400 people were involved in the rescue effort and that the main cause of the deaths was carbon monoxide and dioxide poisoning.

"Time isn't working in our favour. We need to get them out. We could be in a troubled situation," he said earlier.

The miners are all thought to have gas masks, but it was not clear how long they would last.

Vedat Didari, a professor of mining, told AFP that the biggest risk was the lack of oxygen. "If the ceiling fans are not working, the workers could die within an hour," said Prof Didari from the Bulent Ecevit University in the city of Zonguldak.

Explosions and cave-ins are common in Turkey, particularly in private mines where safety regulations are often flouted.

Turkey's worst mining accident happened in 1992 when 263 workers were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in Zonguldak. Soma is one of the key centres for lignite coal mining in Turkey, a district with a population of around 100,000 where the mines and a lignite-fired thermal power plant are the main economic activity.