Hopes fade for miners in Chinese disaster

Dozens of anxious relatives and friends of 11 miners trapped underground by an explosion in central China gathered outside the site on Sunday while rescuers said they were fighting tons of coal dust to try to reach the workers.

The number of miners confirmed dead rose on Sunday by five to 26, state media said, citing a briefing by the rescue headquarters.

China’s crisis happened as the world was still celebrating Chile’s successful rescue of 33 miners trapped for more than two months. Chinese media had detailed coverage as the Chilean men emerged to cheers.

Some in China asked whether their own officials would make as much of an effort in a similar disaster and be just as open about the progress of rescue efforts. The test came quickly for China, whose mining industry is the most dangerous in the world.

Saturday’s blast at the Pingyu Coal & Electric Co. Ltd. mine occurred as workers were drilling a hole to release pressure from a gas build-up to decrease the risk of explosions, the state work safety administration said.

Fading hopes
State media said 70 rescuers had been deployed to the site in Henan province after Saturday’s early morning explosion. Hopes of rescuing the remaining trapped workers were fading as they were buried under coal and it could take three or four days to try to find them, said a report by China National Radio.

Rescuers also faced dangerous gas levels and the risk of falling rocks as they worked their way into the mine pit.

The explosion unleashed more than 2 500 tons of coal dust, an engineer for one of the mine’s parent companies, Du Bo, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency. A rescue spokesperson told Xinhua that workers had located the trapped miners, but must clear tons of coal dust from the mine shaft to reach them.

On Sunday, two dozen police officers were stationed outside the mine’s main gate, preventing anyone from entering the site without authorization. About 50 of the trapped miners’ friends and relatives quietly waited outside, some of them tearful. Murmured discussion of the mine’s poor safety record could be heard.

Another gas blast at the same mine two years ago killed 23 people, state media said.

It wasn’t clear if the miners were alive or how far underground they were trapped in the mine in the city of Yuzhou, about 690km south of Beijing.

Limited information
China Central Television‘s news channel had an excited live broadcast from the mine early Saturday afternoon, but it later did not mention the accident on the main TV evening news. A report later in the evening consisted mostly of information from the state news agency read by an announcer, suggesting that authorities had decided to limit reporting on the accident and rescue efforts.

The gas level inside the mine was 40%, far higher than the normal level of about 1%, state media said. The gas wasn’t specified, but methane is a common cause of mine blasts, and coal dust is explosive.

China celebrated its own stunning mine rescue earlier this year, when 115 miners were pulled from a flooded mine in the northern province of Shanxi after more than a week underground. The miners survived by eating sawdust, tree bark, paper and even coal. Some strapped themselves to the walls of the shafts with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.

But it was a rare bright spot. About 2 600 people were killed in mining accidents last year, and the country’s leaders have been making a high-profile push to improve mine safety.

Premier Wen Jiabao this summer even ordered mining bosses into the mines with their workers or else risk severe punishment.

Mining deaths decreased in recent years as China closed many illegal mines or absorbed them into state-owned companies, but deaths increased in the first half of this year. At least 515 people have been killed nationwide in coal mines alone so far this year, not including Saturday’s blast.

China’s economy remains reliant on coal for about two-thirds of its energy needs. An unknown number of illegal mines still exist to profit from the fast-growing economy’s huge appetite for power. — AP

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