Anger erupted across Turkey on Wednesday as hopes faded for scores of workers trapped in a collapsed mine and the death toll rose to 274, in what has become the country’s worst mining disaster.
Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Ankara and Istanbul, accusing the government and mining industry of negligence, as the country’s biggest union called a strike on Thursday.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said investigations would be launched into the causes of the disaster but rejected claims of government culpability.”Such accidents happen,” he said.
“We have witnessed one of the biggest work accidents in our recent history,” Erdogan said after visiting the mine in the western town of Soma in Manisa province, where grieving relatives of the victims were calling for his resignation.
Erdogan said figures remained uncertain but mining operators thought 120 workers were still trapped following an explosion Tuesday, caused by an electrical fault. Reports from rescue workers on the scene suggest the figure could be far higher.
He also appeared to downplay the seriousness of the accident, comparing it to mining disasters elsewhere, saying “204 people died in the U.K. in 1862 and 361 people in 1864.”
“There is something in literature called work accidents.”
Hundreds of distraught family and friends gathered near the building where Erdogan gave a press conference, some expressing outrage and kicking his vehicle.
Public anger also spilled onto the streets over the accident that has claimed at least 274 lives — most by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police used tear gas and water canon to disperse between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters in Ankara’s downtown Kizilay Square, as well as thousands of demonstrators in Istanbul.
Earlier in the day, they also used tear gas against around 800 students marching on the energy ministry, and 50 protesters who threw eggs at the mining research directorate in Istanbul, reports said.
Turkey’s Public Workers Unions Confederation, which represents 240,000 employees, said: “Those who keep up with privatization … policies, who threaten workers’ lives to reduce cost … are the culprits of Soma massacre and they must be held accountable.”
The disaster added political pressure on Erdogan, who faced mass protests last summer and a huge corruption scandal involving his family and key allies in recent months.
“If the claims of negligence at the mine prove true, it will have a political price. Such a development would render corruption allegations targeting Erdogan’s government more convincing,” Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University told AFP.
Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 274 workers had been confirmed dead but raging fires were hampering efforts by rescue workers still battling to find survivors.
“Time is not working in our favour,” he told reporters, adding that 196 bodies have been delivered to families.
A miner from a different site who joined the effort, Murat Kurkoglu, said: “We will try to save those who are still stuck one by one, but you know very well that there is no more hope. It’s finished for them.”
Earlier reports said 787 workers were underground when the blast occurred. By late Wednesday, “close to 450″ workers had been rescued, said the mine operator, Soma Komur Inc., but accounts from rescue workers cast doubt over the numbers.
“There are pockets of air, but it’s only a glimmer of hope because so far… it’s mostly the dead that we are bringing out,” said Erdem Bakin, a doctor with the Search and Rescue organization.
“We don’t go more than 100 meters from the bottom of the mine. It’s impossible to go right to the bottom because of the risk of asphyxiation from the gas.”
Bakin said they found the transformer that exploded, triggering the collapse. Those between the transformer and the entrance of the mine — around 70-80 people—survived.
“But those who were beyond were taken by the fire and they are all dead,” he said.
Harun Unzar, a miner at the site, said: “We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it’s very bad.”
Explosions and cave-ins are common in Turkey, particularly in private mines, where safety regulations are often flouted.
Turkey’s previous worst mining accident happened in 1992 when 263 workers were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in Zonguldak.
A lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said it submitted a parliamentary motion 20 days ago to investigate work-related accidents at coal mines in Soma but it was rejected by the government.
The CHP’s Manisa deputy Ozgur Ozel told local media: “We receive tip-offs every day that workers’ lives are under threat.
“We lawmakers from Manisa are tired of going to miner funerals.”
Turkey’s ministry of labor and social security said the mine had been inspected eight times in the last four years, most recently on March 17, and was found to comply with safety regulations.
But Oktay Berrin, a miner, said: “There is no security in this mine. The unions are just puppets and our management only cares about money.”
Mining company Soma Komur said it had taken maximum measures to ensure safety.
“The accident happened despite maximum safety measures and inspections, but we have been able to take prompt action,” it said.
France, Germany, the European Union and the United States have offered their condolences and assistance, although Turkey’s foreign ministry said no international aid was required for now.
Soma is a key center for lignite coal mining and is located around 250 kilometers south of Istanbul.