Blast in China coal mine kills 74

February 23, 2009 8:36:32 AM PST
Relatives of coal miners killed and injured during underground explosions expressed frustration Monday over scant information on their loved ones' fate and the causes of China's deadliest mine disaster in a year. Rescuers pulled dozens of workers to safety following the accident, which killed 74 people, but efforts to find more survivors ended Monday at the northern China mine. Of the more than 300 rescued from the Tunlan mine, 114 remained in the hospital, five of them in critical condition, said an official with the Shanxi provincial government spokesman's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

The spokesman said all the miners who were working below ground at the time have been accounted for. An official at the local bureau of mines, who gave only his surname, Sun, also said none were missing and the cause of the blast remains under investigation.

Miners' relatives began arriving at the scene on Sunday and were being sent to a shabby two-story guesthouse in the hilly, bone-dry countryside about a 10-minute drive from the mine.

Qiu Jiong, the brother-in-law of a missing miner, said he and his wife learned about the accident themselves on Sunday morning via the Internet. After telephone calls to the mine rang unanswered, Qiu boarded a bus to make the 200-mile (320-kilometer) journey from his home to find out what he could.

"I've just been told to wait," said Qiu on Monday, standing in the guesthouse's lobby smoking nervously.

Lu Tangyao, said his 38-year-old son Lu Kouqiang, had been killed, criticized the mining company for not releasing more information.

"No one would receive me or tell me anything," said Lu, who has another son working as a safety inspector and a separate coal mine.

"So many people died, but nothing is being said. The government is corrupt and opaque," he said.

A half-dozen ambulances stood parked Monday outside the mine in Gujiao near the provincial capital of Taiyuan -- in contrast to the frenzied rescue operation that followed Sunday's pre-dawn explosions. A pair of policemen guarded the gates into the shaft, and cleaners swept up around the two stone lions marking the entrance to the mine.

Most coal mine explosions are sparked by the accumulation of unventilated coal gas.

The mine's manager, chief safety officer and chief engineer have been removed from their posts as part of the investigation, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Xinhua did not identify the men by name or give other details.

A statement posted on the provincial government Web site said final checks on the mine were being conducted.

"The next step is to double-check at the bottom of the well ... to treat the injured and properly save all the data files in preparation for the investigation," the statement said.

The mine belonging to the state-run Shanxi Coking Group, China's largest producer of coking coal, and had boasted an excellent safety record. The company is the world's second-largest producer of coking coal, used in the production of steel, with sales revenues of more than 37 billion yuan ($5.4 billion) in 2007.

Xinhua said the Tunlan Coal Mine had among the best facilities of any mine in China and no major accidents had occurred there in five years.

The death toll was the highest from a China coal mine accident since December 2007, when gas exploded in an unventilated tunnel in Linfen city, also in Shanxi province, killing 105 miners.

Beijing has promised for years to improve mine safety, and more than 1,000 dangerous small mines were closed last year. But China's mining industry remains the world's deadliest.

About 3,200 people died in coal mine accidents last year, a 15 percent decline from the previous year. The decline in deaths has been attributed to better attention to safety, but also to the closure of many smaller mines, typically dangerous, unlicensed operations that account for much of the carnage.

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