The death toll in one of Turkey's worst mining disasters climbed to more than 270 on Thursday, and protesters took to the streets in several cities, accusing the ruling party of lax regulation, corruption and close ties to the mining industry.
At least 274 miners were killed when a power distribution unit exploded Tuesday at a coal mine in the western town of Soma, about 155 miles south of Istanbul, spreading flames and smoke through a network of tunnels more than 1,000 feet underground, government officials said.
Rescue efforts were underway to reach as many as 150 others who were believed to be trapped in the still-smoldering pit.
Many of the deaths were believed to be the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Thursday.
"Our hopes are fading," he said in comments broadcast live from the scene of the disaster. "The fire is continuing."
Relatives clustered around the mine's entrance, watching as bodies were carried out on stretchers. Covers were briefly pulled back from the faces to give family members an opportunity to identify the dead, news reports said.
Photographs posted on Twitter from inside a morgue showed the bodies of scores of miners, blackened by soot and smoke, laid out on the floor. Other images showed men praying next to a line of freshly dug graves that wound through a local cemetery.
It was the country's worst mining accident since 1992, when a gas explosion killed 263 workers in a mine near Zonguldak, on Turkey's Black Sea coast.
Grief quickly turned to anger in Soma, Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, according to local reports. Hecklers and protesters briefly drove Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take shelter in a supermarket during his visit to Soma, the Associated Press reported.
Erdogan, who faces national elections in August, promised a full investigation, but he was quoted in local media making remarks that many interpreted as callous. He told reporters in Soma that the disaster was "normal" in the industry.
"There is something that is called a labor accident," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet Daily News. "This is part of its nature. But the dimension of this accident has deeply moved us."
Questions were raised last year about a high number of work-related accidents at coal mines in Soma, and opposition parties called for a commission to investigate. But the parliamentary motion was tabled amid opposition from lawmakers in Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.
The mine where this week's accident took place is owned by a subsidiary of Soma Group, which built Turkey's second-tallest skyscraper and is believed to have close ties to the ruling party.
Protesters ransacked the party's office in Soma on Tuesday, chanting, "State murder." Others descended on Soma Group's headquarters in Istanbul, where demonstrators lay down in the tunnels of a central subway. Police in Ankara used tear gas and water cannons to disperse university students who were marching to the Energy Ministry.
The state-run Anadolu news agency said the mine, which produces a reported 250,000 tons of coal per month, recently passed a safety inspection.
Johnson is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
5:09 a.m. May 15: This post has been updated with the latest death toll and other developments.