As the death toll from one of Turkey’s worst mining disasters climbed to more than 200 on Wednesday, questions were being asked about why lawmakers rejected a parliamentary motion to investigate mine safety two weeks ago.
At least 245 miners were killed when a power distribution unit exploded Tuesday at a coal mine in the western town of Soma, spreading flames and smoke through a network of tunnels hundreds of yards underground, according to government officials. Rescue efforts were underway to reach at least 120 others who were feared trapped in the still-smoldering pit.
Many of the deaths were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters.
“Our hopes are fading,” Yildiz said in comments broadcast live from the scene of the tragedy. “The fire is continuing.”
Relatives clustered around the mine’s entrance, watching bodies being carried out on stretchers. Covers were briefly pulled back from the victim’s faces to give family members an opportunity to identify the dead, news reports said.
Photographs posted on Twitter from inside a morgue showed scores of miners, their bodies blackened by soot and smoke, laid out on the floor. Other images showed men praying next to a line of freshly-dug graves that snaked through a local cemetery.
It was the country’s worst mining accident since 263 miners were killed in a 1992 gas explosion near Zonguldak, on Turkey's Black Sea coast. Grief quickly turned to anger.
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 reportedly blocked by deputies from the ruling 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, reportedly chanting, “State murder.”
In Istanbul, demonstrators lay down in the tunnels of a central subway. Police in the capital, Ankara, used tear gas and water cannons to disperse university students who were marching to the Energy Ministry.
Riot police and trucks mounted with water cannons were also deployed outside Soma Group’s headquarters, which was defaced with graffiti reading, “murderers.”
The state-run Anadolu Agency said the mine, which produces a reported 250,000 tons of coal per month, recently passed a safety inspection.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Soma that it was a “normal” accident, while vowing to support the victims’ families and promising that “no stone will be left unturned” as an investigation is launched into the tragedy.
“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.”
Johnson is a special correspondent.