Outside of the all-too regular horrors of China’s underground mines, the coal mine explosion on May 13 at Soma, 250 km south of Istanbul in western Turkey, is the worst mine disaster in recent memory.
The death toll stood at 274 and counting at press time, with some 450 miners having been rescued and many dozens still missing. The workings — which extend at least 420 metres — were still being vented of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and fires were still burning. The Turkish government has declared three days of national mourning.
The Soma disaster has beaten Turkey’s previous worst mining disaster: a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
Initial reports out of Soma have authorities saying that the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a faulty power distribution unit, and the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of the explosion, and many were injured. A shift change was occurring at the time, so a maximum number of workers were underground.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a foreign visit and travelled to the grief-stricken town the day after the explosion.
He toured the surface facilities, met with the team of 400 rescuers and various townspeople, and promised the tragedy would be investigated down to its "smallest detail" and that "no negligence will be ignored," but emphasized that the Soma mine was seen as "one of the safest in Turkey."
However, he showed just how low he’s set the bar at a press conference in Soma, where he cited example after example of mine disasters in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrialized countries, to defend his current government’s mine-safety record.
Press reports quote Erdogan as saying that "I went back in British history. Some 204 people died there after a mine collapsed in 1838. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain. In an explosion in 1894, 290 people died there. Take America with all of its technology and everything . . . In 1907, 361 [miners died there]. These are usual things."
Erdogan went on to cite examples of early twentieth century mine accidents in France and Japan, saying that "in 1942, 1,549 miners died in China due to a mixture of gas and coal . . . Can you believe it?"
He also brushed aside an Al Jazeera journalist asking why the Soma mining company was allowed to operate, by stating there are no coal mines in Al Jazeera’s home country Qatar.
It’s not the first time Erdogan’s callous side has been seen with respect to his country’s miners: after a 2010 mine accident in Turkey that killed 30, he said that death was part of the "profession’s fate."
In front of the ruling NKP party headquarters in downtown Soma, public rage over the accident took the form of a street protest that pitted rock-throwing youth against riot police with gas masks and water cannons. Media reports describe protesters as chanting that Erdogan was a "murderer" and "thief."
In Istanbul, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the offices of the Turkish mine-owner Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S., while in the capital Ankara protesters tried to march on the Energy Ministry but were forcibly dispersed by police.
The Associated Press describes Turkey’s Labour and Social Security Ministry as having said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including this past March, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.
However, the country’s main opposition party CHP said Erdogan’s ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into a series of smaller accidents at mines around Soma.
A CHP deputy noted that Turkey tops the occupational accidents list among European countries and ranks third worldwide in terms of accidents.
The deputy said that workers die an average of 8.5 times more in Turkey than in the European Union, and that there were 880,000 occupational accidents in Turkey between 2002 and 2013, with 13,442 killed in these accidents.
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