Ece Toksabay Soma, Turkey
Loudspeakers broadcast the names of the dead and excavators dug mass graves in the close-knit mining town of Soma yesterday, while protesters gathered in major cities as grief turned to anger over Turkey’s deadliest industrial disaster.
Rescuers were still trying to reach parts of the coal mine 480km south-west of Istanbul, almost 48 hours after a fire knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, trapping hundreds.
At least 282 people have been confirmed dead, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning, and hopes are fading of pulling out alive any more of the 100 or so thought to remain inside.
Anger has swept a country that has boasted a decade of rapid economic growth under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government but which still has one of the worst workplace safety records.
Furious residents heckled Erdogan and jostled his entourage on Wednesday as he toured the town, angry at what they see as the government’s cosiness with mining tycoons, its failure to ensure safety and a lack of information on the rescue effort.
Access to the mine entrance was closed by paramilitary police roadblocks several kilometres away ahead of a visit by President Abdullah Gül yesterday, as officers searched cars.
“We came here to share the grief and wait for our friends to come out but we were not allowed. Is the president’s pain greater than ours?” asked Emre, 18, who said friends from his village were still trapped.
Erdogan, who announced three days of mourning from Tuesday, expressed regret for the disaster but said such accidents were not uncommon, and became defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place.
A picture of an Erdogan adviser appearing to kick a protester, doing the rounds on social media, did little to help his image. His office was not immediately available to comment.
Erdogan, who is expected to stand in a presidential election in August, has weathered mass protests and a corruption scandal in the past year, and his AK Party dominated local polls in March despite the political turbulence.
But his fractious handling of a disaster hitting the sort of working class, conservative community that makes up the core of his supporter base is further evidence, his opponents say, that he is a leader increasingly out of touch.
Four of Turkey’s labour unions called for a national one-day strike, furious at what they see as a sharp deterioration in working conditions since formerly state-run mines, including the one in Soma, were leased to private firms.
“Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the start by being forced to work in brutal production processes in order to achieve maximum profits,” a statement from the unions said, calling on people to wear black.
Several thousand people staged a sit-down protest in front of police water cannons in Istanbul, holding banners with slogans including: “It is not accident, it is not fate, it is murder”, and “Our hearts are burning in Soma”.
Police fired water cannons to break up a demonstration in Izmir and there were reports of protests in Mersin and Antalya.
Around a thousand union members gathered in Ankara to march on the labour ministry, some wearing miners’ helmets and waving banners showing the image of Che Guevara.
“The fires of Soma will burn AKP” and “AKP murderers”, they chanted, as police watched.
Thousands of family members and co-workers have gathered outside the hospital in Soma seeking information.
The rescue operation was hampered late on Wednesday as the fire inside the mine continued, making it hazardous for crews to retrieve bodies.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the ventilation systems had been relocated and the teams were getting ready to go back inside.
The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Yildiz initially said 787 workers had been in the mine, though Erdogan said on Wednesday that around 120 were still thought to be trapped.
Turkey’s safety record in coal mining has been poor for decades, with its previous worst accident in 1992, when a gas blast killed 263 workers in the province of Zonguldak.
Mine operator Soma Komur Isletmeleri said nearly 450 miners had been saved and that the deaths had been caused by carbon monoxide. It said the cause of the fire was not yet clear.
Initial reports suggested an electrical fault had caused the blaze but Mehmet Torun, a board member at the scene, said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine’s tunnels and galleries. – Reuters