SOMA, Turkey (AP) — Amid wails of grief and anger, rescue workers coated in grime trudged repeatedly out of a coal mine Wednesday with stretchers of bodies that swelled the death toll to 274 — the worst such disaster in Turkish history.
Hopes faded for 150 others still trapped deep underground in smoldering tunnels filled with toxic gases.
Anti-government protests broke out in the mining town of Soma, as well as Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heckled as he tried to show concern. Protesters shouted “Murderer!” and “Thief!” and Erdogan was forced to seek refuge in a supermarket, surrounded by police.
The display of anger could have significant repercussions for the Turkish leader, who is widely expected to run for president in the August election, although he has yet to announce his candidacy.
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 as rescue workers removed body after body, some charred beyond recognition.
One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognized one of the dead, and police had to restrain him from climbing into an ambulance with the body. An injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion: 274 died and 363 were rescued, including scores who were 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 still unaccounted for.
Yildiz said rescue workers were trying late Wednesday to reach the bodies of up to 22 people trapped in one zone. Some of the workers were 1,400 feet (420 meters) deep inside the mine, he said.
One rescue worker who declined to be named said he led a 10-man team about a half-mile down into the mine’s tunnels, where they recovered three bodies before being forced to flee because of smoke from burning coal. Rescue operations were halted for several hours into Thursday morning because high gas concentrations in the mine needed to be cleared.
The last miner rescued alive emerged from the mine around dawn and the first burials took place later Wednesday.
Giza Nergiz, a 28-year-old English teacher, said some of the victims 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 declared three days of national mourning and postponed a trip to Albania to visit the mine in Soma, 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Istanbul. He 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 show compassion — discussing rescue operations with authorities, walking near the mine entrance, trying to comfort two crying women — did not always go over well.
At a news conference, he tried to deflect a question about who was responsible for the disaster, saying: “These types of things in mines happen all the time.”
“These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘work accident’… It happens in other work places, too,” Erdogan said. “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 this industrial town, where coal mining has been the main industry for decades, Erdogan’s ties to mining leaders were vehemently noted. Townspeople said the wife of the Soma mine’s boss works for Erdogan’s party and the boss himself had skipped town.
“They are trying to look like they care, but they are not helping anyone. There is no urgency, even now. People blame Tayyip,” Nergiz said.
In downtown Soma, protesters, most in their teens and 20s, faced off against riot police in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters, smashing its windows with rocks.
“Our prime minister is a dictator,” said 16-year-old Melih Atik. “Neither the government nor the company took precautions in the mine, and everyone knows that’s why this happened.”
Erdogan has been dogged by corruption allegations and was forced to oust four government ministers in December after they were implicated in a police bribery probe. The scandal deepened after audio recordings were posted on the Internet suggesting corruption by the prime minister and his family members. Erdogan denies the allegations and says they are a plot to discredit his government.
In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of mine owner Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S. Police used tear gas and water cannon to break up a group who tried to march to the city’s iconic Taksim Square to denounce poor safety conditions.
Police also dispersed a group marching to the energy ministry in Ankara to protest the deaths.
Fences were erected and police stood guard outside Soma’s hospital, where scores of the injured were being treated. Some residents said the men were being pressured by the mining company not to talk about the blast.
Authorities said the disaster followed an explosion and fire at a power distribution unit and most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Erdogan promised the tragedy would be investigated to its “smallest detail” and that “no negligence will be ignored.”
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Tuesday’s explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll.
Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, and that no safety violations were detected. But the country’s main opposition party said Erdogan’s ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.
Emine Gulsen sat with other women Wednesday near the entrance to the mine, where her missing son, 31-year-old Mehmet Gulsen, has worked for five years.
“My son is gone! My Mehmet!” she wailed over and over.
Mehmet’s aunt, Makbule Dag, still held out some hope.
“God willing” he will be rescued, she said.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press Writer Berza Simsek in Soma also contributed to this report.
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