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23 Nov 2009 07:16
Hundreds of rescuers in northern China are battling to reach 21 miners trapped after a huge gas explosion early on Saturday killed at least 104 of their colleagues.
But the prospects of finding more survivors of the deadliest blast in almost two years are rapidly diminishing. The workers are thought to be about half a kilometre underground in the pit in Heilongjiang province, near the Russian border.
China’s mining industry is the deadliest in the world, with more than 3 000 workers killed last year despite a massive safety drive that has slashed fatalities.
The campaign has focused on closing small, often illegal, private mines, but the Xinxing mine, scene of the blast, is state owned and produces more than a million tonnes of coal a year.
The explosion destroyed a nearby building and reportedly blew out windows in nearby Hegang city.
Television footage showed smoke billowing from the mine.
One survivor, Wang Xingang, told state news agency Xinhua he blast briefly knocked him out.
Officials said 528 people were working in the mine when the blast occurred at 2.30am and 420 escaped. The death toll doubled overnight.
Zhang Fucheng, an official heading rescue efforts, told state broadcaster CCTV that dense gas and collapsed tunnels were holding up attempts to reach the 21 miners. The blast reportedly crippled the ventilation and communication systems.
More than 240 rescuers have entered the shaft, with at least 300 others assisting, state media reported. The teams are working in extreme cold, with temperatures dropping to -10C overnight.
A provincial news website, citing miners, alleged that safety staff knew gas had reached dangerous levels and were rushing to evacuate the pit when the blast erupted 500 metres below ground.
But Zhang Jinguang, spokesperson for the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, told Reuters that “as far as I know, there were no signs [beforehand]”.
Huang Guizhen, the wife of an injured miner, told the site: “When I saw my husband, this mess of blood and flesh, I didn’t recognise him at first. Then the doctor told me it was my husband and I burst into tears.”
Another resident told Reuters that one of her friends remained unconscious in hospital while a second was still in the mine, adding: “There’s no hope.”
China is heavily dependent on coal, which generates about three-quarters of its electricity and is also burnt for heating. But the energy supplied comes at a huge cost. Chinese miners produce less coal per capita than those in the US and South Africa but are far more likely to die at work.
In February, a blast at a mine in Shanxi, northern China, killed 77. An explosion in the same province killed 105 people in December 2007 and 203 died in Liaoning province in 2005.
Last month, the head of the State Administration of Coalmine Safety, Zhao Tiechui, said accidents had fallen by more than 46% between 2004 and last year.
But Huang Shengchu, head the of China Coal Information Institute, has said the reduction is partly due to reduced production. “Amid financial difficulty, coal producers can no longer overproduce. Less exploitation has resulted in fewer accidents and deaths so far this year,” he told the state newspaper China Daily, warning that the fatality rate could leap again as the economy recovers.
Experts also say the industry’s true toll is higher than it appears because mine bosses often attempt to cover up casualties, and deaths from mining-related illnesses are not included.
Li Zhanshu, governor of Heilongjiang, said today: “We must put safety first. Development is important, but the growth of GDP shouldn’t be achieved at the price of miners’ blood.”
In an indication of how alarmed authorities are by the incident, vice-premier Zhang Dejiang travelled to the scene, set up an investigation team and ordered officials in other regions to learn lessons from the accident, while state media reported that the president, Hu Jintao, and the premier, Wen Jiabao, had issued instructions on the rescue effort.
An employee at the company which runs the mine told AP the mine’s director, deputy director and chief engineer had been fired. - guardian.co.uk
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