SOMA, Turkey — As grieving families prepared to bury more of the dead from Turkey’s worst mine disaster, the country’s energy minister said on Friday that up to 18 people were still missing and the death toll could exceed 300.
The assessment was lower than other accounts suggesting that scores of miners were still unaccounted for.
An explosion at a coal mine on Tuesday near this town in western Turkey ignited a blaze producing noxious fumes that choked hundreds of miners to death as they were changing shifts. By Friday, the death toll stood at 284, but the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, said in televised remarks to reporters that the final count was unlikely to be more than 302.
“A maximum number of 18 workers are inside,” Mr. Yildiz said, according to news reports. “We expect the toll at around 301 or 302.”
Mr. Yildiz has been saying for several days that there is little hope of finding more survivors.
The disaster rekindled concerns about safety standards and work conditions at Turkey’s mines, and there have been protests in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities, with demonstrators accusing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government of indifference.
That perception deepened on Thursday when Turkish newspapers published photographs of a prime ministerial aide kicking a protester who was being held down by police during a visit to the mine on Wednesday by Mr. Erdogan, who was heckled.
On Friday, Mr. Yildiz said he hoped a reduction in the levels of toxic fumes in the mine would enable rescuers to enter its galleries to retrieve the missing miners.
Mourners planned more funerals Friday after mass burials on Thursday when, with passport-size photographs of their loved ones fastened to their chests, relatives shuffled toward the cemetery in a mourning ritual repeated for hours. At least 30 miners were buried as gravediggers toiled to make room for the bodies of the men still trapped underground.
Mr. Yildiz’s estimate of 18 miners still missing was lower than had been expected on Thursday when at least 140 miners were said to be trapped in chambers deep underground, with little hope of survival.
For the first time since the disaster, the company operating the mine offered its own comment on the deaths, saying on Friday that there was no negligence on its part and that it still did not know the exact cause of the accident, Reuters reported.
“We still do not know how the accident happened. There is no negligence of ours in this incident. We all worked heart and soul,” Akin Celik, the plant manager of the mine, run by Soma Holding, was quoted as saying.
Mr. Yildiz, the energy minister, had said earlier that anyone found to have been negligent would be punished.
(via NY Times)