Rescuers were struggling to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 201 workers. In one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history, e nergy minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time of the accident and 363 of them had been rescued so far.
At least 80 miners were injured, including four who were in serious condition, he told reporters in Soma, as he oversaw the rescue operation involving more than 400 rescuers.
The accident occurred when the workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which probably raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.
Mr Yildiz said the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and feared the death toll could end up much higher than the latest count of 201 workers.
The rescue effort is “reaching a critical stage,” he said, with more deaths likely as time passes.
Earlier, the minister said the rescue operations were hindered because the mine had not completely been cleared of gas.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit at the mine, which is some 155 miles south of Istanbul.
Nurettin Akcul, a mining trade union leader, told HaberTurk television that Turkey was probably facing its worst mining accident ever.
“Time is working against us. We fear that the numbers could rise further,” Mr Yildiz said.
“We have to finish this (rescue operation) by dawn. I have to say that our pain, our trouble could increase.”
Earlier Mr Yildiz said some of the workers were 460 yards deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers could not use lifts to get out of the mine because the explosion had caused a power cut.
Television footage showed people cheering and applauding as some trapped workers emerged out of the mine, helped by rescuers, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot.
One wiped away tears on his jacket, another smiled, waved and flashed a “thumbs up” sign at onlookers.
Dozens of ambulances ferried back and forth bodies and the injured extracted from the mine and rescue workers were massed at the entrance of the mine on a hill side. Family members at the scene pleaded for news of their loved ones.
One woman threw herself on the ground, crying after hearing about the death of a loved one, HaberTurk television showed.
There were tears of joy for another who told the station she had just spoken by telephone to a missing relative.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania scheduled for today and planned to visit Soma instead.
SOMA Komur Isletmeleri, which owns the mine, said the accident occurred despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls” and added that an investigation was being launched.
“Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones,” the company said in a statement.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.
Turkey’s worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
Mr Yildiz said the fire was still burning inside the mine, 18 hours after the blast, and the air around the mine was still smoky.
The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, he added.
Turkey’s Labour and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March this year, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.