274 dead in Turkey's worst-ever mine disaster
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 antigovernment protests erupted in Soma, Istanbul, and Ankara, the capital. Erdogan had to seek refuge in a supermarket, surrounded by police, then leave in a black car after the protest in Soma died down. He also did little for his reputation by noting that workplace accidents are "ordinary things" that happen in many countries.
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.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people had been inside the mine at the time of Tuesday's explosion: 274 had died and 363 had been rescued, including scores of 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 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.
Some workers had been up to 460 yards deep inside the mine, Yildiz said. One rescue worker who declined to be named said he had led a 10-man team about a half-mile down into the mine's tunnels. They recovered three bodies but had to turn around and flee because of smoke from burning coal.
The last worker rescued alive emerged from the mine around dawn, and the first burials took place later Wednesday. Rescue operations were halted for several hours into Thursday morning because high gas concentrations in the mine needed to be cleared.
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 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 statesmanlike - 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 downtown Soma, protesters mostly in their teens and 20s faced off against riot police in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters. The protesters smashed some of the party's office windows with rocks, shouting that Erdogan was a "Murderer!" and a "Thief!"
"Our prime minister is a dictator," said protester Melih Atik, 16. "Neither the government nor the company took precautions in the mine, and everyone knows that's why this happened."