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Rescuers Seek Survivors in Turkish Mine Disaster

IZMIR, Turkey — Rescuers battled on Wednesday to reach miners trapped underground after more than 200 were killed in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkey in decades. Despite the extensive rescue operation, a senior official said hopes of finding survivors were “dimming.”

More than 200 were thought to be still underground after an explosion in a power distribution unit on Tuesday set off a fire that was still burning on Wednesday. The official casualty toll was put at 205 dead and 80 injured — the highest for such a disaster since 263 workers died in a gas explosion at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea in 1992.

“We are worried that this death toll will rise,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters. “I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts.”

“We are dealing with an incident that might result with the highest worker loss ever in Turkey,” Mr. Yildiz said, according to Turkish news reports. “We still want to hope that miners have found small caves to hide in to breathe and survive.”

The mine is in Soma, a town about 75 miles northeast of this Aegean port city.

By Wednesday, 360 workers had been brought to safety by hundreds of rescuers, including some miners who had survived the explosion, according to the semi-official Anadolu News Agency. But some parts of the facility remained inaccessible.

“Even with a gas mask, it is hard to survive,” Sami Kilic, a miner who has been working at Soma mine for nine years, told the news channel CNN Turk. “When a power distribution unit explodes, power goes off; when power goes, off ventilation breaks down; when ventilation breaks down, air circulation stops, and so do chances to live.”

Mr. Kilic said that miners have been trained to use gas masks in emergencies on the assumption that they would reach fresh air in 45 minutes..

“We received training as to how to reach up to fresh air in 45 minutes wearing a gas mask,” Mr. Kilic said. “You cannot climb up 1.5 kilometers in 45 minutes.”

Hours after the explosion, rescuers could be seen in video images from the mine pulling the dead and wounded to the surface as smoke rose over the scene. Miners with blackened faces were helped to leave the mine.

The prime minister’s office in Ankara declared three days of mourning, NTV, a private news network reported. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to visit Soma on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Mr. Yildiz said that many, perhaps most, of the miners had died of smoke inhalation. “We’re dealing with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide poisoning,” he said on television. Although rescue efforts were underway, “time is against us,” he added.

The explosion set off a fire that blocked exits from the mine, Cengiz Ergun, the mayor of the nearby town of Manisa, said in a telephone interview with CNN Turk. The area has some of the world’s largest coal reserves.

The rescuers sought to save those still trapped by pumping oxygen into the mine. Thousands of family members and fellow miners gathered at the nearest hospital. The precise number of miners still underground was unclear. Mr. Yildiz said on Tuesday that 787 workers were listed as being in the mine, but because of a shift change that was underway when the explosion happened, the exact number still trapped was uncertain.

Turkey’s disaster management agency estimated that 200 were underground by late Tuesday. As the death toll mounted, rescuers used a cold storage warehouse and freezer trucks as makeshift morgues, news reports said.

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(via NY Times)