AMASRA, Turkey (AP) — Funerals for miners killed in a coal mine explosion in northern Turkey began Saturday, as officials raised the death toll to at least 41.
Desperate relatives waited all night in the freezing cold outside the state-owned Turkish Hard Coal Enterprise (TTK) mine in the town of Amasra in Baltin province on the Black Sea coast, hoping for news. 110 miners were working hundreds of meters underground when the explosion occurred Friday night.
Their wait turned devastating by noon Saturday. Women cried at the funeral of miner Selcuk Ayvaz, whose coffin was wrapped in a red and white Turkish flag. A few days earlier, another miner, 28-year-old Aziz Kose, was holding his newborn baby. Most of them come from working-class families and go to underground coal mines to make a living.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived at the scene and said the body of a missing miner had finally been found, with 41 confirmed dead. Flanked by officials, miners and rescuers, Erdogan vowed to end the mine disaster while saying he believed in “fate.”
“We don’t want to see flaws or unnecessary risks,” Erdogan said, adding that the investigation would reveal whether anyone was responsible for the explosion. He then attended funeral prayers for 22-year-old Rahman Ozcelik in a village where three other miners were also mourned, Turkish media said.
Eleven people were injured and hospitalized, five of them in serious condition, and another 58 escaped from the mine on their own or were rescued unharmed.
Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said the rescue was complete. Earlier, he had said the area where a dozen miners were trapped was on fire.
Preliminary assessments suggest the explosion may have been caused by biogas, a flammable gas found in coal mines, Donmez said overnight. Three prosecutors are investigating the bombing.
A day-shift miner said he rushed to the scene to assist in the rescue after seeing the news.
“We saw a horrific scene, indescribable, very sad. They are all my friends … they all have dreams,” said Celal Kara, 40, who has been a miner for 14 years, leaving the mine. He later told The Associated Press that his face was covered in soot.
An ambulance is on standby at the scene. Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD said rescue teams had been dispatched to the area, including from neighboring provinces. Black smoke rises from the entrance of the mine, surrounded by forest.
A mining technician from TTK told NTV broadcaster his team of rescue and occupational safety personnel arrived at the scene on Friday night. They walked into the mine with tool kits and stretchers and walked about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles), Ismail Cetin said. They found nine bodies, which he called “my martyrs.”
Countries around the world have expressed their condolences to Turkey. The Greek prime minister offered rescue aid despite particularly strained relations between the two neighbours recently.
Separately, Turkish police said in a statement they would take legal action against 12 people suspected of sharing provocative content about landmine explosions on social media to incite hatred.
Turkey’s worst mining disaster occurred in 2014, when a fire at a coal mine in the western town of Soma killed 301 miners. Five months later, 18 miners were killed in floods at a coal mine in central Karaman province.
The heads of the left-wing union DISK said in a statement they were “sad and angry” that the deaths were preventable and the union’s safety advice was ignored. Despite calls for more checks in the wake of the Soma tragedy, DISK leader Arzu Cerkezoglu claimed some precautions were ignored for profit, calling Friday’s blast a “massacre”.
Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.