Frantically working rescuers feared the 11 Chinese miners trapped by a deadly gas blast may have suffocated or been buried by coal dust, as loved ones kept a vigil today and the death toll rose to 26 with five more bodies recovered.
The Chinese mine drama unfolded as the world still was 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.
Du Bo, deputy chief of the rescue headquarters, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that hopes that the others were still alive after Saturday's early morning blast were slim.
"Based on past experience, the remaining 11 miners could be buried in coal dust, so the survival chances are frail," Du said. Rescuers had to clear tons of coal dust from the mine shaft to reach the trapped workers, and they faced dangerous gas levels and the risk of falling rocks as they worked their way into the mine pit.
An initial investigation showed that 6 million cubic feet (173,500 cubic meters) of gas rushed out, Xinhua said, citing rescuers. The outburst generated enough force to throw 2,500 tons of coal dust into the mine pit, it said.
The gas wasn't specified, but methane is a common cause of mine blasts, and coal dust is explosive.
Saturday's blast at the Pingyu Coal & Electric Co. Ltd. mine occurred as workers were drilling a hole to release pressure from a gas buildup to decrease the risk of explosions, the state work safety administration said.
Efforts to lower the density of the gas in the pit by increasing ventilation have been hampered by coal that is blocking a 550-foot- (170-meter-) long shaft, which rescuers say will take them until Wednesday to clear, state media said.
Two dozen police officers were stationed outside the mine's main gate today, 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.
Two years ago, another gas blast at the same mine killed 23 people, state media said.
On today, it wasn't clear how far underground the workers were trapped in the mine in the city of Yuzhou, about 430 miles (690 kilometers) south of Beijing. The bodies of all 26 people confirmed dead have been recovered.
The gas level inside the mine was 40 percent, far higher than the normal level of about 1 percent, state media said.
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 Chinese mining accidents last year, even as the country's leaders have been making a high-profile push to improve mine safety.
Premier Wen Jiabao this summer ordered mining bosses into the shafts and pits with their workers or else risk severe punishment.
Mining fatalities 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 yesterday's blast.