Hopes of survival fade after mine fire kills 238 in Turkey

A fire caused by a transformer explosion in a coal mine in western Turkey has left more than 200 people dead, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said in a statement Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Credit: CNN)

A fire caused by a transformer explosion in a coal mine in western Turkey has left more than 200 people dead, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said in a statement Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Credit: CNN)

SOMA, Turkey — A sullen throng maintained a vigil outside a coal mine in Soma, Turkey, on Wednesday as hopes flagged for finding survivors inside the burning complex of tunnels.

At least 238 people were known dead and as many as 120 trapped inside the mine, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters, citing figures given to him by the mining company.

Efforts to save them were being complicated by the fire, which began Tuesday after a transformer blew up during a shift change. Emergency officials said 88 people had made it out of the mine. It is unclear how many workers were underground at the time of the explosion.

Some survivors crawled out of the burning mine on their own, one miner told CNN Turk.

Although crews were pumping air into shafts that weren’t burning, hopes of reaching and rescuing any survivors seemed to grow fainter by the hour.

“Our hopes are diminishing,” Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters.

But rescue volunteer Mustafa Gursoy said emergency workers aren’t giving up hope even though conditions inside the mine are abominable — hot, smoky and filled with carbon dioxide. Some miners, he said, could have reached emergency chambers stocked with gas masks and air.

“If they could reach those emergency rooms and reach their gas masks and close the doors and protect those emergency areas from the poison gas, then they could survive,” Gursoy said at the mine. “It’s possible. We are ready for anything.”

Speaking to reporters after visiting with rescuers, Erdogan offered his condolences to the families of those who died and said there’s “a sadness shared by the whole population of our country.”

“God will offer urgent remedy and care” to those who were injured, he said.

Smoke rose from openings in the ground Wednesday as helicopters buzzed overhead. Flags flew at half-staff. Police and rescue workers were everywhere, but there was precious little for them to do.

Early Wednesday, emergency crews hauled up dozens of survivors as a crowd looked on in the post-midnight darkness. But that flow soon stopped.

By midafternoon, after a long pause, rescuers were bringing out people on stretchers one or two at a time. Their condition was unclear.

They were placed in waiting ambulances and taken away. Crowds massed around the city hospital, eager for news.

Political fallout

The trauma from what may be the worst mine disaster in Turkish history has left Soma and the rest of Turkey in shock. A mining accident in the 1990s took 260 lives. This one has the potential to top it.

Erdogan warned politicians not to use the disaster as a political platform, even as Erdogan’s political opponents awaited him in Soma with accusations about the tragedy.

Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region had filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.

Sometimes three people died, sometimes five, said opposition spokesman Aykut Erdogdu. And Ozel wanted to get to the bottom of the deaths.

Several dozen members of opposition parties signed on to his proposal, but the conservative government overturned it. And some of its members publicly lampooned it, he said.

Erdogan questioned Ozel’s version, and said the mine had passed safety inspections as recently as March.

The mine, owned by SOMA Komur isletmeleri A.S., underwent regular inspections in the last three years, two of them this March, Turkey’s government said. Inspectors reported no violation of health and safety laws.

Opposition members have scoffed at those inspections’ validity.

The company has taken down its regular website and replaced it with a single web page in all black containing a message of condolence.

Erdogan canceled a trip to Albania to tour the rescue effort and speak to relatives of dead and injured miners. He declared three days of national mourning.