Turkey coal mine explosion: miners need 'a major miracle' as hopes fade for 120 still trapped

Teams are continuing to try and rescue trapped workers after mine explosion

Hopes are fading for over 120 miners still trapped underground after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 238 workers, the Energy Minister has said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visiting the mine this afternoon, confirmed the rise in the death toll as hopes receded as to how many more workers will be successfully brought out.

"We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey," Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters at the scene.

Most of the dead suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, Mr Yaldiz claimed. Oxygen is currently being pumped into the mines, where those trapped are reported to be two kilometres below the surface and almost four kilometres from the entrance.

Mehmet Torun, a board member and former head of the Chamber of Mining Engineers who was at the scene, said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine's tunnels and galleries.

"They are ventilating the shafts but carbon monoxide kills in three or five minutes," he told Reuters.

"Unless we have a major miracle, we shouldn't expect anyone to emerge alive at this point," he said, pointing to an outside chance that workers may have found air pockets to survive.

Mr Yildiz said the fire was still burning inside the mine in Soma, about 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Istanbul, over 19 hours after the blast occurred when some 787 people were inside.

Questions are now being raised over why Mr Erdogan's ruling AKP party refused calls by the Republican People's Party in April for an investigation into work-related incidents of mines in Soma.

A proposal was submitted last year for investigations to be carried out into more than 4,500 reported accidents at mines in the region, but it was rejected three weeks ago, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The International Labour Organization ranked the EU candidate nation third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.

Mr Erdogan has declared three days of national mourning and lowered flags to half-staff.

A rescue operation carried out by more than 400 rescuers has continued overnight to free the hundreds are still trapped inside the mine, while only about 360 miners have been evacuated so far.

The Doğan News Agency has reported one of the victims of the disaster was a 15-year-old boy.

At least 80 miners have been injured, including four who were in serious condition, Mr Yildiz added, as he oversaw the rescue operation. A power-cut triggered by an electrical fault has made the mine cages unusable, further complicating rescue efforts.

The accident occurred when the workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which has raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.

Reuters have reported a cold storage warehouse, usually used for food, and freezer trucks are acting as makeshift morgues as hospital facilities overflowed.

Medical staff intermittently emerged from the hospital to read the names of survivors being treated inside, with families and fellow workers clamouring for information.

Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.

Workers from nearby mines were brought in to help the rescue operation.

During the night, people cheered and applauded as some trapped workers emerged from the mine, helped by rescuers, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot.  But dozens of ambulances drove back and forth to carry the rising number of bodies as well as injured workers extracted from the mine.

A man kisses his son after he was rescued from the mine A man kisses his son after he was rescued from the mine

SOMA Komur Isletmeleri AS, which owns the mine, said the accident occurred despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls” and added that an investigation was being launched.

“Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones,” the company said in a statement.

Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Additional reporting by agencies

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