The death toll in a coal mine disaster in western Turkey rose to 238 on Wednesday, with 80 more injured, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.
"According to the first indications, 238 of our workers lost their lives and 80 were injured," Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the mine in Soma, about 480 kilometres southwest of Istanbul.
The prime minister said 120 workers are believed to still be trapped in the mine.
Overnight rescue efforts Tuesday faced a race against time to free the hundreds trapped underground.
The death toll has risen rapidly since the blast struck Tuesday in Manisa Province, when a total of 787 mineworkers became trapped inside the mine.
"We fear the number could rise even further because those who came to help out may be among the injured and affected by the smoke," Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
Yildiz told reporters on Wednesday that the fire started by the explosion was still burning – lessening the chances that the missing miners were still alive, said FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer, reporting from Ankara.
The fire will absorb much of the oxygen that the men need to survive below ground.
Yildiz said that a team of 400 people were involved in the rescue effort and that the main cause of the deaths was carbon monoxide and dioxide poisoning.
The miners are all thought to have gas masks, but it was not clear how long they would last.
Vedat Didari, a professor of mining, told AFP that the biggest risk was the lack of oxygen.
"If the ceiling fans are not working, the workers could die within an hour," said Didari, from the Bulent Ecevit University in the city of Zonguldak.
Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft for those who remained trapped some two kilometres (one mile) below the surface and four kilometres from the entrance.
Earlier a security source told AFP that there were pockets in the mine, one of which was open so rescuers were able to reach the workers, but the second was blocked with workers trapped inside.
The explosion was believed to have been triggered by a faulty electrical transformer at around 12:30pm GMT Tuesday.
'This is enormous'
Hundreds of people gathered around the explosion site as rescuers brought out injured workers, who were coughing and struggling to breathe through the coal dust.
Sena Isbiler, the mother of one of the miners, stood on top of piles of wood, craning her neck to see who was being led out of the mine.
"I have been waiting for my son since early afternoon," she said. "I haven't heard anything about him yet."
Arum Unzar, a miner who works with those still missing, said he had lost a friend previously. "But this is enormous," he said.
"All the victims are our friends," he said as he wept.
"We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it's very bad," he added.
Late Tuesday evening injured people were still emerging from the collapsed mine, some walking and others being carried by rescue workers while being given oxygen.
Nearby, security officers tried to keep ambulance routes clear to ensure help could reach the victims.
The Soma Komur mining company issued a statement saying the mine had maximum safety measures.
"The accident happened despite maximum safety measures and inspections, but we have been able to take prompt action," it added.
"Unfortunately, some of our workers have lost their lives in this tragic accident," the statement said.
Energy Minister Yildiz promised that if it was discovered that any negligence was to blame for the disaster "we will not turn a blind eye to it. We will do whatever necessary, including all administrative and legal steps".
Turkey's ministry of labour and social security said the mine was last inspected on March 17 and was found to be compliant with safety regulations.
But Oktay Berrin, a miner, said workers were not protected underground.
"There is no security in this mine," he said.
"The unions are just puppets and our management only cares about money."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office said he would arrive in Soma on Wednesday after cancelling a trip to Albania.
Speaking in Ankara, the leader expressed his "heartfelt condolences" to the families of those who died.
"Some of the workers have been rescued and I hope we will be able to rescue the others," Erdogan said.
Explosions and cave-ins are common in Turkey, particularly in private mines where safety regulations are often flouted.
Soma is one of the key centres for lignite coal mining in Turkey, a district with a population of around 100,000 where the mines and a lignite-fired thermal power plant are the main economic activity.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-13