Engineers hurl scandalous accusations after Turkish mine fire kills 282

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A fire caused by a transformer explosion in a coal mine in western Turkey has left 282 people dead, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said. (Credit: CNN)

SOMA, Turkey — Turkey’s President spoke words of comfort to loved-ones of the nearly 300 miners who have died in a mine fire, a day after the Prime Minister was blasted over comments seen as insensitive.

The deadly mine fire in Turkey is a “sorrow for the whole Turkish nation,” President Abdullah Gul told reporters Thursday. He offered his condolences to the victims’ families.

Onlookers listened silently until a man interrupted Gul with shouts: “Please, president! Help us, please!”

An investigation into the deadly Turkey mine disaster has begun, Gul said. “I’m sure this will shed light” on what regulations are needed. “Whatever is necessary will be done,” he said.

He commended mining as a precious profession.

“There’s no doubt that mining and working … to earn your bread underground perhaps is the most sacred” of undertakings, he told reporters.

Gul had entered the mine site with an entourage of many dozens of people — mostly men in dark suits — walking through a crowd of rescue workers who were standing behind loosely assembled police barricades.

Resigned boredom marked the workers’ faces after they had stood and sat outside the mine for hours, idle and waiting. Some of them had passed the time talking on cell phones, others smoking or taking off their hard hats and burying their faces in their hands.

With hope of finding survivors nearly gone, it appeared there was little they could do.

At the mine, there was little sign of the anger that is rife in Turkey over the accident. Unions have called for strikes across the country Thursday.

Rage at Prime Minister

A day earlier, the Prime Minister gave a speech in Soma that drew scathing criticism.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan glazed over mine safety when he spoke to relatives of dead and injured miners Wednesday, describing the carnage they had suffered as par for the course in their dangerous business.

He rattled off a string of horrible past accidents, even going back to an example from 19th-century Britain.

As he took a stroll through the city, onlookers showered him with deafening jeers as well as chants of “Resign Prime Minister!”

Hundreds took to the streets in anti-government protests in Istanbul and Ankara, with police answering in some cases with water cannons and tear gas.

In the nation’s capital of Ankara, some left black coffins in front of the Energy Ministry and the Labor and Social Security ministry buildings.

More bodies

Rescue and recovery workers retrieved more bodies Thursday from the smoldering coal mine in Soma, western Turkey, bringing the tally to 282 dead so far.

The bodies of nearly 200 miners who were trapped in the burning shaft nearly a mile underground have been returned to their families.

The mood at the mine was equally sullen the day before, but every so often, the grief came out loud and clear.

“Enough, for the life for me!” yelled one woman — her arms flailing, tears running down her cheeks. “Let this mine take my life, too!”

Rescuers saved at least 88 miners in the frantic moments after a power transformer blew up Tuesday during a shift change at the mine, sparking a choking fire deep inside.

Autopsies on dozens of bodies revealed the miners had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Erdogan said Wednesday that as many as 120 more were trapped inside the mine, though that was before rescue crews grimly hurried a series of stretchers — at least some clearly carrying corpses — past the waiting crowd.

Scathing engineers’ accusations

A group of engineers investigating the cause of the inferno have made a scandalous accusation this week.

“WHAT HAPPENED IN SOMA IS NOT FATE, IT IS MURDER,” a local branch of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers wrote in all capital letters at the top of its official statement Wednesday.

Although the group is not known for any party affiliation and comprises serious experts, such slaps have become common in a country riven with political division, where street protests and water cannons have become a familiar sight.

The statement also reflects the waves of anguish that have jolted Turkey after what looks to be the deadliest mine disaster in its history.

The latest death toll already tops a mining accident in the 1990s that took 260 lives.

The chamber of electricians also contradicted the official version of how the fire started: “The fire was not caused by an electrical situation as presented to the public in the first statements.”

The assessment from inspectors from the chamber’s local branch in Izmir on what happened rings of negligence.

“The inspection revealed that the systems to sense poisonous and explosive gases in the mine and the systems to manage the air systems were insufficient and old,” they said.

The blaze started as a “coal fire” at 700 meters depth, and then air fans pushed the flames and smoke farther through the mine, the chamber concluded. The ventilation was not corrected until “much later.”

The miners were trapped and inundated with smoke and fire.

Soma’s public prosecutor’s office has started an investigation of its own into the fire, Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported.

Political bonfire

The chamber’s accusations land on top of those already heaped on Erdogan’s government by his political opponents.

Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region, which includes Soma, filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.

He has said that he is sick of going to funerals for miners in his district.

Several dozen members of opposition parties signed on to his proposal, but Erdogan’s conservative government overturned it. Some of its members publicly lampooned it, an opposition spokesman said.

The mine, owned by SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., underwent regular inspections in the past three years, two of them this March, Turkey’s government said. Inspectors reported no violation of health and safety laws.

Waiting on dead friends

For Veysel Sengul, a miner waiting by the mine’s entrance for more of his friends to emerge, the mourning may go on much longer than the three days of official grieving ordered by Erdogan.

After what’s happened, he said, he’ll never work in a mine again.

Rescuers haven’t given up hope that some miners reached emergency chambers stocked with gas masks and air and could still be alive.

But Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, speaking earlier, said “hopes are diminishing” of rescuing anyone yet inside the mine.

Sengul has already given up. The miner knows that four of his friends — at least — are dead.