153 Remain Trapped in China Mine

March 31, 2010

Workers reported underground water leaks days before a flood coursed through a coal mine in northern China, where 153 people remained trapped Tuesday in potentially one of the country’s worst mining disasters, a worker and state media said.

There has been no communication with the miners since the flood tore through the Wangjialing mine in Shanxi province Sunday afternoon. Some 1,000 workers are tunneling around the clock to drain away water but appear days away from making any rescue.

Officials have yet to declare the cause of the accident, but experts said it was likely that miners broke into the old shafts or pits of derelict mines that had filled with water.

The disaster is a setback to recent, significant improvements in the dire safety record of China’s mining industry, the world’s deadliest, claiming thousands of lives each year. Shanxi province is China’s top coal-producing region.

Anxious relatives of those trapped — many of them migrants from other provinces — gathered at the site and complained about what they said was the slow pace of the rescue work, saying they weren’t seeing water being pumped out of the mine.

“We need to see some action to make us feel like they are doing all they can,” said Long Liming, brother-in-law of one of the trapped miners. “They have the materials, the pipes are here, why aren’t they getting to rescuing people?”

A Wangjialing miner said that workers had warned of water leaks in the underground shafts as early as last Thursday but were ignored.

“They told leaders, but nothing was done about it,” said Yang Shengcai, 48, a miner from Hebei province. “They would call and say, ‘There’s water here,’ but still nothing was done. I don’t know why. This kind of thing is up to the leaders to handle.”

The Beijing News reported Tuesday that the leaks were so bad that before the accident, workers had asked that pumps be brought in to clear some of the pooled water.

David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government, said hidden shafts are a common cause of mine floods. Shanxi would be particularly vulnerable, he said, because it “is an area where they have very extensive mining, a lot of old mines.”

The Wangjialing accident could prove one of the most deadly mine accidents in China since a coal mine flood in eastern Shandong province in August 2007 killed 172 miners.

China’s State Administration of Work Safety said 261 workers were inside the Wangjialing mine when it flooded, and 108 escaped or were rescued. The 153 workers who remained underground were believed to be trapped in nine different places in the mine, which was flooded with up to 5 million cubic feet (140,000 cubic meters) of water, state television said.

It was unclear if anyone was still alive in the shafts, some of which extended a half-mile (one kilometer) into the earth. China Central Television said there have been no signs of life or communication with people underground since the flood happened.

The broadcaster reported rescuers have drilled 65 feet (20 meters) of a planned 400-foot (120-meter) water diversion channel that they hope can clear waters away from the trapped workers. Work had yet to start on a second, 980-foot (300-meter) tunnel leading from the ground straight down to the affected shafts because engineers were uncertain where to start the drilling, the report said.

Authorities were also worried that gases from the abandoned shafts may have flowed into the mine, bringing new dangers such as explosions or poisoning.

“The top priority now is to speed up pumping the water and achieve the goal of saving people,” Luo Lin, the director of the State Administration of Work Safety, told China Central Television. “In addition, the drilling needs to be done faster too.”

Zhao Chuan, a rescue worker, said intermittent electricity cuts were hampering their efforts.

Liu Dezheng, a chief engineer with the work safety bureau in Shanxi, said rescuers were rotating on four-hour shifts and must be prepared to work for “at least seven days and seven nights.”

Dozens of miners’ relatives, including women carrying small children, gathered near the mine office, demanding rescuers do more. A few amid the crowd of about 60 people shouted at police who were trying to keep them from rushing into the office, though the scene was generally peaceful.

Tang Yinfeng, a migrant worker from the southern province of Hunan, said two of her younger brothers were trapped underground. “I want to bring oxygen tanks down,” said Tang, 49. “I want to save them myself.”

While deadly accidents are commonplace in China’s mines, its safety record has improved as authorities have shut down smaller, labor-intensive operators or forced them into mergers with better-funded state companies.

Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners in 2009, down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record, according to the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety. That means on average more than seven miners die daily, down from 19 in 2002.

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