By Desmond Butler and Suzan Fraser
SOMA, Turkey – In a relentless procession that ignited wails of grief, rescue workers coated in grime lumbered out of a mine in western Turkey again and again Wednesday, struggling to carry stretchers laden with bodies covered in blankets.
The corpses’ faces were as black as the coal they worked on daily. There were 274 of them – and the fate of up to 150 other miners remained unclear in Turkey’s deadliest-ever mining disaster.
While emergency workers battled a toxic mix of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in deep underground tunnels to try to find survivors, anger and despair engulfed the town of Soma, where Turkish officials said at least 274 miners died in Tuesday’s coal mine explosion and fire.
Tensions were high as hundreds of relatives and miners jostled outside the mine’s entrance Wednesday, waiting for news. They were countered by a heavy police presence.
Rows of women wailed uncontrollably and men knelt sobbing or just stared in disbelief as rescue workers removed body after body. To let off steam, some heckled Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as they passed by.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people had been inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion: 274 had died, 363 had been rescued and scores of them were injured.
The death toll topped a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near Turkey’s Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
It also left 150 miners still unaccounted for. Erdogan said Wednesday morning that 120 miners were still missing. There was no immediate way to reconcile the differing figures.
Rescuers were still trying to vent out the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and pump clean air into the mine, according to mine owner Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S.
Yildiz said rescue workers were trying late Wednesday to reach the bodies of 20-22 people trapped in one specific zone. Some of the workers had been up to 420 meters (460 yards) deep inside the mine, he said.
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. An injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.
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 authorization to talk to journalists.
The anger boiled over into violent protests in Soma, Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, all directed at Erdogan and his government.
Giza Nergiz, a 28-year-old English teacher, said some of the workers who died had complained about safety at the mine.
“We buried three of our high school friends today,” she said, walking with her husband Onur Nergiz, a 30-year-old mine administrator. “A lot of people were complaining about safety, but nobody (in management) was doing anything about it.”
The first burials took place Wednesday. Earlier, Erdogan said that families were being asked to identify the bodies of loved ones from photographs.
Erdogan had declared three days of national mourning and postponed a trip to Albania to visit the mine in Soma, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul. Erdogan is widely expected to run for president in elections in August, although he has not yet announced his candidacy. He warned that some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit his government.
“Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out,” Erdogan said of those still trapped. “That is what we are waiting for.”