205 dead in Turkey mine explosion, hundreds trapped

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TURKEY — As a crowd milled around with downcast eyes outside a coal mine in western Turkey on Wednesday, a miner dashed their hopes that his co-workers still stuck inside would make it out alive.

There are 200 of them trapped in the shaft about two-thirds of a mile — or 1 kilometer — underground, disaster officials have said.

The miner and some friends had crawled out of the burning mine in the town of Soma on their own, he told a reporter from CNN’s sister network CNN Turk.

He choked up as he said that he can’t imagine anyone else having the same luck.

The fire that killed at least 205 workers after a transformer blew up, was still burning and preventing help from getting to them, Turkey’s energy minister said.

Smoke rose up from openings in the ground around the mine a day after the fire broke out.

“Rescue operations will continue once smoke and CO2 levels are minimized,” Taner Yildiz told reporters.

‘Our hopes are diminishing’

During the night, emergency crews had hauled up 88 survivors, as a crowd looked on in the post-midnight darkness. All but eight were injured.

CNN Turk aired the rescue of one miner to a cheering crowd.

But progress has stopped at the mine.

“Our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz said.

He had no official update of the death toll, but he expected it to rise.

Officials have carried out 72 autopsies. The dead and injured seemed to be suffering from burns and suffocation, said the region’s member of parliament Muzaffer Yurttas.

About 100 rescuers, dozens of ambulances and helicopters were dispatched to the scene.

They have pumped fresh air down into the shaft to areas not engulfed in flames, Yildiz said.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a visit to Albania and is traveling to Soma to offer comfort to those whose loved-ones are trapped inside the mine.

He has declared three days of national mourning starting with Tuesday.

Political fallout

Erdogan’s political opponents awaited him in Soma with accusations over the tragedy already at hand.

Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region had filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.

Sometimes three people died, sometimes five, said opposition spokesman Aykut Erdogdu. And Ozel wanted to get to the bottom of it.

Several dozen members of opposition parties signed on to his proposal, but the conservative government overturned it. And some of its members publicly lampooned it, he said.

The mine owned by SOMA Komur isletmeleri A.S. underwent regular inspections in the last three years, two of them this March, Turkey’s government said. Inspectors reported no violation of health and safety laws.

Opposition members have scoffed at those inspections’ validity.

The company has taken down its regular website and replaced it with a single web page in all black containing a message of condolence.

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