By Desmond Butler and Suzan Fraser Associated Press
SOMA, Turkey — Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 201 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, at the time of the accident and 363 of them had been rescued so far.
At least 80 miners were injured, including four who were in serious condition, Yildiz told reporters in Soma, as he oversaw the rescue operation involving more than 400 rescuers.
The accident occurred when the workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.
Yildiz said the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and feared the toll could end up much higher than the latest count of 201 workers.
The rescue effort is “reaching a critical stage,” Yildiz said, with more deaths likely as time passes.
Earlier, the minister said the rescue operations were hindered because the mine had not completely been cleared of gas.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.
Nurettin Akcul, a mining trade union leader, told HaberTurk television that Turkey was likely facing its worst mining accident ever.
“Time is working against us. We fear that the numbers could rise further,” Yildiz said. “We have to finish this (rescue operation) by dawn. I have to say that our pain, our trouble could increase.”
Earlier Yildiz said some of the workers were 420 meters (460 yards) deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers could not use lifts to get out of the mine because the explosion had caused a power cut.
Workers from nearby mines were brought in to help the rescue operation. One 30-year-old man, who declined to give his name, says he rushed to the scene to try to help find his brother who was still missing early Wednesday with the sun rising over the mine. He said he was able to make it about 150 meters (490 feet) inside before gasses forced him to retreat. With tears in his eyes, he said that there were still fires burning and that the missing workers had been inside too long.
“There is no hope,” he said.
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. Rescue workers were massed at the entrance of the mine on a hillside.
Family members at the scene pleaded for news of their loved ones.
A group of women sat wailing near the entrance to the mine. One of the women, Emine Gulsen, chanted in song, “My son is gone, my Mehmet.” Her son, Mehmet Gulsen, 31, has been working in the mine for five years. He started his shift Tuesday morning and had not emerged.
Mehmet Gulsen’s aunt, Makbule Dag, held out hope. “Inshallah” (God willing), she said.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away.
Authorities had earlier said that the blast left between 200 to 300 miners underground and made arrangements to set up a cold storage facility to hold the corpses of miners recovered from the site.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania scheduled for Wednesday and planned to visit Soma instead.
SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., 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.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.
Turkey’s worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Berza Simsek in Soma contributed.
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