SOMA, Turkey (AP) — Anger and grief boiled over into a violent protest Wednesday in the western Turkish town of Soma, where officials said at least 245 miners died in a coal mine explosion and fire.
Nearly 450 other miners were rescued, the mining company said, but the fate of an unknown number of others remained unclear in one of the world’s deadliest mining disasters in decades.
Tensions were high as hundreds of relatives and miners jostled outside the coal mine waiting for news, countered by a heavy police presence. Rows of women wailed uncontrollably, men knelt sobbing and others just stared in disbelief as rescue workers removed a steady stream of bodies throughout the night and early morning. Others shouted at Turkish officials as they passed by.
In downtown Soma, protesters mostly in their teens and 20s faced off against riot police Wednesday afternoon in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters. Police had gas masks and water cannons.
Many in the crowd expressed anger at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Rocks were thrown at the police, who chased down some of the protesters. Other protesters shouted that Erdogan was a “murderer!” and a “thief!”
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away from scores of injured miners.
In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company that owns the mine, Soma Holding. In the capital, Ankara, police dispersed a group who tried to march to the energy ministry to protest the deaths, the Dogan news agency reported.
Erdogan had warned that some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit the government. Erdogan himself is widely expected to run for president in elections in August, although he has not yet announced his candidacy.
Erdogan had declared three days of national mourning and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff after the tragedy struck Tuesday. He postponed a foreign trip to visit the mine in Soma, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul.
“Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out,” he said of those still trapped. “That is what we are waiting for.”
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit and the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. The prime minister promised the tragedy would be investigated to its “smallest detail” and that “no negligence will be ignored.”
Erdogan discussed rescue operations with authorities, walked near the entrance of the mine and comforted two crying women. He has appeared less-than-sympathetic in the past, however, saying that death was part of the “profession’s fate” after 30 miners died in a 2010 accident.
Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March of 2014, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected. But the country’s main opposition party said Erdogan’s ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion, 245 died and scores were injured. He spoke to reporters as he oversaw rescue operations by more than 400 emergency workers.
“Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz said.
Yildiz said some of the workers were 420 meters (460 yards) deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers couldn’t use elevators to escape because the explosion had cut off power.
The last worker rescued alive emerged from the mine around dawn, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she didn’t have prior authorization to speak publicly to journalists.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Tuesday’s explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside than usual.
A statement from the mining company, Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S., said rescuers were still trying to vent out the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the mine and pump in clean air.
“We are deeply saddened to have lost 238 of our colleagues,” it said, adding that close to 450 others had been rescued. There was no immediate confirmation of that number from Turkish officials, who earlier said 363 had been rescued.
The company said investigation into what caused the fire was underway and an announcement on its likely cause would come after the fire was completely under control.
Turkey’s worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
At the mine early Wednesday, rescue workers slowly emerged carrying stretchers with bodies covered in blankets. The corpses’ faces were as black as the coal they worked on daily.
One man, who declined to be named, said he had led a 10-man team about a kilometer (half-mile) down the mine into the tunnels and had recovered three bodies. But his men had to flee because of smoke from coal set alight by the explosion, he said.
Another man walked weeping down the stairs from the mine’s entrance. Behind him, two groups carrying heavy stretchers pushed through the crowd like caterpillars.
As the bodies were brought out on stretchers, rescue workers pulled blankets back so crowds of anxious family members could get a chance to identify victims. One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognized one of the dead, and police had to restrain him from climbing into an ambulance with the body.
One injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.
Emine Gulsen was in a group of women who sat wailing near the entrance to the mine. Her son, Mehmet Gulsen, 31, has been working in the mine for five years.
“My son is gone! My Mehmet,” she cried.
But Mehmet Gulsen’s aunt, Makbule Dag, still held out hope.
“Inshallah” (God willing), she said.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Berza Simsek in Soma contributed to this report.
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