Soma, Turkey • In a relentless procession that ignited wails of grief and flashes of anger, rescue workers coated in grime lumbered out of a mine in western Turkey again and again Wednesday, struggling to carry 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 tunnels, 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.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was heckled as he tried to show concern and anti-government protests erupted in Soma, Istanbul and Ankara, the capital. He had to seek refuge in a supermarket, surrounded by police, then leave after the protests died down.
The display of anger could have significant repercussions for Erdogan, who is widely expected to run for president in the August election, although he has not yet announced his candidacy.
Tensions were high as hundreds of relatives and miners jostled outside the mine’s entrance Wednesday, waiting for news amid a heavy police presence. Rows of women wailed uncontrollably and men knelt sobbing or simply stared in disbelief as rescue workers removed body after body.
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 up to 22 people trapped in one 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 and the first burials took place later Wednesday.
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."
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. He had 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."
Yet his efforts to appear statesman-like — discussing rescue operations with authorities, walking near the mine entrance, trying to comfort two crying women — did not go over well. And some of his statements appeared completely tone-deaf.
"These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘work accident’... It happens in other work places, too," Erdogan told reporters as he tried to deflect a question about who was responsible for the disaster. "It happened here. It’s in its nature. It’s not possible for there to be no accidents in mines. Of course we were deeply pained by the extent here."
In this industrial town, where coal mining has been the main industry for decades, Erdogan’s ties to mining leaders were sharply noted. Locals said the wife of the Soma mine’s boss reportedly works for Erdogan’s party and the boss himself had skipped town.
"They are trying to look like they care but they are not helping anyone. There is no urgency, even now. People blame Tayyip," Giza Nergiz said Wednesday.Next Page >
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