Hundreds dead or trapped in one of Turkey’s worst mining disasters

For hours Tuesday night, stretchers filed in and out of a coal mine in the western Turkish town of Soma. More than 200 had already been confirmed dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in one of the worst coal mine explosions in Turkey’s history — and, as the soot-streaked men were wheeled to waiting ambulances, it looked as though that number would climb even higher.

One man named Turgut Sidal, a tall, steely-eyed coal miner, stood in the throng of onlookers, as seen in video captured by Agence France-Presse. “This isn’t something that suddenly happens,” he said. “There are people who are dying. People who are injured, and it’s all because of money. People are dying, and there’s nothing we can do about it. They send us here like lambs to the slaughter. We’re not safe doing this job.”

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Sidal seemed right on Tuesday night when an explosion and fire ripped through the mine with 787 people inside.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference Wednesday that at least 238 workers were killed and 80 injured, with about 120 others still believed trapped in the mine. Early Associated Press reports said more than 360 miners were rescued. Violent protests later erupted in the town, news agencies reported.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters that the rescue effort was “reaching a critical stage,” and that the death toll would likely rise. The trapped miners, stuck nearly a quarter of a mile beneath the surface, could not escape the shafts because the explosion cut the mine’s power — and, therefore, its elevators. Officials worried that the longer the miners remain in the mine’s bowels, the longer they would breathe carbon monoxide.

“Time is working against us,” Yildiz told the Associated Press. “We fear that the numbers could rise further. We have to finish this [rescue operation] by dawn. I have to say that our pain, our trouble could increase.”

The company that owns the mine, SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., said in a statement that the explosion happened despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls.”

Some miners, however, explained that Tuesday night’s explosion was not an aberration. “We’ve had small incidents before, but we’ve never had such a serious accident,” one miner only identified as Coskun told AFP.

But such serious accidents have happened in Turkey before. Scores were killed in 1990 in a coal mine blast, and Turkey’s worst mining disaster came in 1992 when a gas explosion killed 263 miners near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Erdogan announced he was canceling a Wednesday trip to Albania so he could visit Soma. “Rescue efforts for our brothers in the mine are ongoing,” Erdogan said in a speech before the extent of the disaster became clear, Reuters reported. “God willing, in the coming hours, I hope to receive uplifting news.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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