Chinese miners meet with rare happy ending

Times Staff Writer

Zhang Shuansuo was deep underground, working on a coal conveyor, when he heard a strange whooshing sound, “like a bellows.” At first he thought something was wrong with the conveyor.

But with the help of a co-worker, his supervisor soon found the source of the unusual noise: Water was gushing into the shaft.

The supervisor “came back and said, ‘Let’s run,’ ” Zhang recalled Wednesday night, speaking by cellphone from near the Zhijian Mine in Henan province, about 450 miles southwest of Beijing.

Zhang and his immediate team of co-workers did as ordered, and escaped the mine before the water rose too high. That was on Sunday morning, when they were among 33 miners to reach safety.


There had been 102 men in the mine.

On Wednesday morning, Zhang was on hand to witness an amazing sight: All 69 of his remaining co-workers were rescued. One by one they emerged, filthy and weak, with black blindfolds protecting their eyes from the sun. Most had to be supported, and some carried. But they were alive.

“Everyone is feeling very happy now,” Zhang said.

Happy endings are not the norm in Chinese mine stories. Last year, according to the government, 4,746 people died in mine accidents in China -- an average of about 18 each workday. And those are the official statistics. All indications are that the number is higher, perhaps considerably so.

Just six months ago, a fire broke out in another coal mine near the Zhijian Mine. According to the Beijing News, mine officials reported that two people had died and five were missing. But an investigation later determined that 24 miners had died, the newspaper said. Moreover, the mine had been operating without a license for more than a year.

As a result of that disaster, the Beijing News said, all mines in the area were ordered shut down for safety retrofitting. However, Zhang, the coal miner, said he was unaware of any such work at the Zhijian Mine, which was state-run. The mine appeared to be operating normally when the flood hit.

The accident occurred when aboveground floodwaters, which have ravaged vast swaths of China, caused the collapse of an abandoned aluminum mine adjoining the coal operation, according to China’s State Administration of Work Safety. There was no indication whether the aluminum mine had been properly shut down.

The coal mine’s main shaft descended at an angle, bottomed out and then ascended before hitting a dead end. The 69 miners were trapped in the ascending section because the lowest section of the 6-foot-high shaft was filled with water.

They were fortunate on several counts, however. They were able to maintain continual telephone communication with the ground, and a ventilation shaft was unaffected by the flooding.

“Everyone knew we could be saved because the telephone line wasn’t broken,” Yang Wanjun, one of the rescued miners, was quoted as saying by the New China News Agency. “If it had been [broken], we’d be dead for sure.”

Perhaps more significantly, the rescue captured the attention of top Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao, who demanded that authorities do whatever it took to rescue the miners. The Chinese government has pushed this year to improve its mine safety record, demanding the closure of about 10,000 small mines, which tend to be the most dangerous.

But safety has inevitably taken a back seat to the intense pressure to provide energy for the country’s booming economy.

With about 300 soldiers assigned to assist, rescue workers used the 2,600-foot ventilation shaft to pump oxygen to the men. Later, milk and soup were provided. At the same time, the rescue crew began pumping out the water. The evacuation Wednesday began just after rescuers determined that enough water had been removed to allow a safe evacuation. It took about an hour to bring up the miners.

A small coterie of rescuers stood outside the mine and applauded as the first miner, identified as Lan Jianning, emerged. As succeeding miners came out, mine officials shook their hands. The miners, as seen on television, looked too weary to respond, their arms pumping mechanically before falling limp the moment they were released.

The miners were taken to three nearby hospitals. Authorities said all were doing well, though exhausted. “Some of them suffered diarrhea because they had drunk filthy water while being trapped underground, but now they are all stable,” Ma Jian-zhong, director of the Henan Provincial Department of Health, told official state media.

Gu Bo of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.