AFP - Seventy-four workers were confirmed dead and dozens trapped underground after a gas blast early Sunday at a north Chinese colliery, the worst accident to hit the nation's mines in over 14 months.
More than 400 miners were on the job when the pre-dawn explosion ripped through the mine overnight, the official Xinhua news agency reported. A number of victims died after being rescued from the mine, it said.
Some of the miners trapped at the site outside Taiyuan, capital of the main coal-producing province of Shanxi, reportedly called their families on mobile phones from underground.
The death toll makes this the most lethal accident reported in China's disaster-prone mining industry since 105 people died in a mine explosion in December 2007, also in Shanxi.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao issued instructions to do everything possible to save those still trapped inside the mine, state television reported, later giving the updated death toll of 74.
One of the survivors, 27-year-old Xue Huancheng, said he and his co-workers initially were not aware how serious the accident was and were not ordered to leave the mine until more than an hour after the blast.
"At that time the power supply underground was cut off and we had to walk," he told Xinhua from his hospital bed. He added he reached the mouth of the mine after 50 minutes, at which time he fainted from lack of oxygen.
Xinhua said dozens of rescuers had gone underground at midday in search of those still missing. A total of 436 were at work when the blast erupted, and more than 300 miners escaped alive, the agency reported.
One man told Xinhua that a mere coincidence had saved him from being among those trapped at the Tunlan coal mine.
"I should have been among them, had I not changed my shift with another miner," said the man, who declined to be named. "He is still underground. I hope he is alive."
According to state media, about 3,200 people died in Chinese coal mines in 2008.
However independent labour groups have long maintained that China's mining death toll is much higher than the government says, as local mine bosses and regional leaders cover up accidents to avoid fines and costly mine shut downs.
Government figures also show that almost 80 percent of the nation's 16,000 mines are illegal.
Most of the miners rushed to hospital after Sunday's accident had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, Xinhua said, citing doctors at the Xishan Hospital of Coal and Electricity.
A photo posted online showed one of the survivors, apparently unconscious and with a blackened face, being rushed to medical treatment.
A total of 113 miners were under observation at hospital, including 21 whose injuries were "relatively serious," according to Xinhua.
The mine, which has an annual capacity of five million tonnes, is operated by the Shanxi Jiaomei Group, according to Xinhua.
It said that it was considered a relatively safe mine, with no accidents reported over the past decade.
Zhang Baoshun, the head of the Communist party in Shanxi, told them to take care and avoid getting hurt while carrying out their dangerous work.
China has vowed for years to improve safety at its mines, but has been hampered by a lack of resources to effectively supervise the sprawling industry, a major employer of destitute migrant workers.