At the mouth of the Soma coal mine today, smoke drifted over hundreds of exhausted rescue workers and increasingly desperate relatives of miners trapped in what has emerged as Turkey’s worst industrial disaster.
As the death toll from the explosion that struck the mine in the west of the country on Tuesday rose to 274, hopes were fading fast today for as many as 400 others still trapped underground.
"We are heading toward this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey," Energy Minsiter Taner Yildiz told reporters at the scene.
Families of victims sat ashen-faced, some quietly weeping as muddied and bleary-eyed rescuers emerged from the mine, bringing a steady stream of corpses into the daylight. One man was dragged away wailing by soldiers guarding the mine entrance to one of the hastily constructed tents.
“The awful part is not going into the mine, but leaving it with the bodies,” says Emre Cidan, a young rescue worker sitting among a group of exhausted colleagues. “The relatives gather round and shout ‘Father! Brother! Son!’ They reach their arms out and call their names,” he says. “Even if we find them dead, I’m still glad we’re doing this. At least the families know.”
Rescue workers stayed relatively close to the surface. The grueling work of heading down the tunnels has been left to miners themselves.
“They do it because they are the only ones who know their way around down there,” says Ali Erdem, an above-ground worker at the mine who sat with his wife and son as darkness fell on the pine-wooded valley that shelters the dilapidated mine. He was waiting for news of friends.
Murat Sevben, a worker at the privately owned mine, said he had taken more than 10 trips down to search for survivors and retrieve corpses since arriving in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
“When we first got in, we couldn’t go far because we had no oxygen. Later we went down farther with masks. We found about 15 living people yesterday and one today," he said. “There were many dead."
Uncertain death toll
Initial reports suggested that the disaster was triggered by the explosion of a power transformer deep in the 6,500-ft.-deep mine, but an official from Turkey’s disaster management agency said the true cause remained unclear.
Miners, rescuers, and officials said that the initial blast knocked out the power at the mine, disabling lift and ventilation systems. Workers were trapped more than 1,300 feet underground as tunnels filled with smoke and poisonous carbon monoxide.
The exact number of those still underground remains uncertain because the accident occurred during a changeover of shifts.
Mr. Yildiz said early this morning that 787 people were inside at the time of the explosion, although officials later admitted they were not sure of the actual number. Another search and rescue official said about 70 people had so far been rescued. An additional 20 who were close to the entrance at the time of the explosion escaped immediately.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning and canceled his official schedule to visit the mine.
"We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain," he told a news conference after visiting the site, where a steady stream of bodies continued to emerge.
When questioned over Turkey’s dismal record for worker safety, however, he struck a defensive tone.
"Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world," he said, citing a list of global mining accidents that included accidents in Britain and the United States in the 19th century.
The International Labour Organization ranked Turkey the third-worst country in the world for worker deaths in 2012.
Less than two months ago, Soma voted in a mayor from Mr. Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party, but last night, violent protests against the prime minister erupted. At the mine site today, a group of protesters chanted that the “the murderers will be judged.”
In Istanbul and Ankara, the capital, thousands marched in protest of alleged government negligence that led to the deaths, and were met with police tear gas and water cannons.
In Soma, where funerals for the dead began yesterday, the tragedy is all-encompassing. About 16,000 people in this community of 105,000 work in the mining industry.
"There is not a street in Soma where people will not feel this,” said Mr. Erdem.