Turkey mine explosion: Miner reveals the survival technique that saved his life – and how he can never go back below ground

Trapped two kilometres underground with more than 140 of his colleagues, Emre Alaca stayed alive by biting iron structures and holding his nose to deliver oxygen to his brain

Soma

In a room 50 metres square, trapped two kilometres underground with more than 140 of his colleagues, Emre Alaca had given up hope.

When he began his eight-hour shift on Tuesday morning, he had no idea he would be spending a second eight hours underground struggling for breath and certain he would die.

Mr Alaca was working on extending a new route for coal excavation, which only opened for production last week. When the explosion happened at 3.10pm, he was trapped with fire between him and the exit.

The first he knew there was a problem was when he smelled the smoke, like burned tyres. There was panic, shouting and confusion.

“There was nowhere to go,” Mr Alaca, 30, said. “If you go one way you get smoke, and the other way was the same.”

The community remain angry. Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters who gathered in Soma shouting anti-government slogans, and calling on the government to resign.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK party has ordered an investigation, but said there was no problem over supervision of the mine. “We have no inspection and supervision problem,” Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the party said.

Mr Alaca’s experience was different. All the miners carry gas masks, but he didn’t reach for his. “I knew they were old and don’t work. We take them with us when we go in, but they’re single-use masks and should be checked every six months, but they’re not.”

 

Nearby was a machinery room which had clean air thanks to pumps used to power it. The group lasted in the room for two hours before the air became too hard to breathe. Then the men adopted a technique, known among the older miners.

“There was an engineer with us,” Emre said, “he told us to bite the iron structures. If you hold your nose and bite the iron, it delivers oxygen to the brain.”

The men stood for hour after hour fighting sleep. Closing your eyes and relaxing meant death so the engineer kept encouraging the men to stay awake and to stay alive. Some prayed, some shouted, but most were silent.

“There were so many people, we were shoulder to shoulder,” Mr Alaca said. Out of the 144 colleagues trapped with him, he says six were rescued alive.

Among the rescuers looking for him was his childhood friend Sefa Köken. “I cried when I heard. I was so happy I could go and tell his family the good news,” he said.

Both are convinced there are hundreds more miners to be found and accuse the government of lying.

“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Mr Köken. “There are at least 200 men still down there and they are probably under water.”

As we talk, Mr Alaca’s phone rings and he receives news he’s been waiting for. Two more bodies have been recovered. His friends.

Approximately 1,500 men are employed in the pits here. It’s the primary source of income for men in the area and many survivors say they have to go back for the money.

For Mr Alaca, though, it’s unthinkable. “I just had to step on bodies to get out of the mine,” he said. “How can I go back in?”

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