Turkish mine owner denies any negligence in disaster
At least 284 workers confirmed dead, with 18 still trapped inside
Relatives mourn during the funeral for the victims of a mining disaster in Soma, Turkey. Rescuers are still trying to reach parts of the coal mine in Soma, 480 km southwest of Istanbul. Photograph: Ahmet Sik/Getty Images
Turkish riot police clash with protestors during a demonstration for the victims of the Soma mine explosion, in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Erdem Sahin/EPA
The operator of the Turkish mine where 284 workers were killed this week in Turkey‘s worst ever mining disaster said today there was no negligence on the part of the company and that it still did not know the exact cause of the disaster.
“We still do not know how the accident happened. There is no negligence of ours in this incident. We all worked heart and soul,“ said Akin Celik, the plant manager of the mine, run by Soma Holding.
The operator of a Turkish mine in which 284 people died this week and 18 remain trapped said today the exact cause of a fire was still unclear but that a build-up of heat had caused a partial collapse in the plant.
Rescuers were still trying to reach parts of the coal mine in Soma, 480km southwest of Istanbul, three days after a fire knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, trapping hundreds underground in Turkey’s worst ever mining disaster.
“It was an unbelievable accident in a place where there have been very few accidents in 30 years,” Soma Holding chairman Alp Gurkan told a news conference. “A mine with top level miners, accepted as being the most trustworthy and organised.”
The company said a total of 787 workers had been in the mine at the time, of which 122 had been hospitalised and a further 363 rescued.
Hopes are fading of pulling out any more of those still thought to be inside.
Anger has swept a country that experienced a decade of rapid economic growth under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government but still suffers from one of the world’s worst records of workplace safety.
Furious residents heckled Mr Erdogan on Wednesday as he toured the town, angry at what they see as the government’s cosiness with mining tycoons, its failure to ensure safety and a lack of information on the rescue effort.
Access to the mine entrance was blocked by paramilitary police roadblocks several kilometres away for a visit by President Abdullah Gul yesterday. Officers searched cars.
“We came here to share the grief and wait for our friends to come out but we were not allowed. Is the president’s pain greater than ours?” asked Emre, an 18-year-old trying to get to the mine who said friends from his village were still trapped.
Mr Erdogan, who announced three days of national mourning from Tuesday, expressed regret for the disaster but said such accidents were not uncommon, and turned defensive when asked if sufficient precautions had been in place.
Newspaper Radikal published an amateur video clip on its website appearing to show Mr Erdogan saying “Come here and jeer at me!” as he walked through a hostile crowd in the town.
A picture circulating on social media of one of his deputy personal assistants, Yusuf Yerkel, kicking a protester as he was wrestled to the ground by armed special forces officers did little to help the prime minister’s image.
Colleagues in Mr Erdogan’s office defended Mr Yerkel, saying the protester had travelled to Soma deliberately to cause trouble.
London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where Yerkel once studied, issued a statement saying it had no association with him after being besieged with enquiries.
“I am sad I was not able to maintain my composure despite all the provocations, the insults and attacks to which I was exposed on that day,” Mr Yerkel later said in a statement.
Out of touch
Mr Erdogan, who is expected to stand in a presidential election in August, has weathered mass protests and a corruption scandal over the past year, yet his AK Party dominated local polls in March despite the political turbulence.
But his handling of a disaster hitting the sort of working class, conservative community which makes up the core of his supporter base is further evidence, his opponents say, that he is a leader increasingly out of touch. Mr Gul, a co-founder of Erdogan’s party but known for a less abrasive style, struck a more conciliatory tone, saying Turkey needed to review regulations to bring them in line with other countries.
“The pain of every single person is the pain of all of us,” Gul said. “Such suffering should not be happening. Just like the advanced countries which no longer go through this, we have to re-evaluate our rules and take all the necessary measures.”
Four of Turkey’s labour unions called for a national one-day strike, furious at what they see as a sharp deterioration in working conditions since formerly state-run mines including the one in Soma were leased to private firms.
Several thousand people demonstrated peacefully in Istanbul, holding banners with slogans including: “It is not an accident, it is not fate, it is murder” and “Our hearts are burning in Soma”.
Some staged a sit-down protest in front of police lines.
Police fired water cannon to break up a demonstration in Izmir, the nearest large city to Soma, and there were reports of protests in the southern cities of Mersin and Antalya.
About 1,000 people from various trade unions gathered in Ankara to march on the Labour Ministry, some wearing miners’ helmets and waving banners showing the image of Che Guevara. “The fires of Soma will burn AKP,” and “AKP murderers” they chanted, as police looked on.
Thousands gathered after noon prayers for the funerals of more than 40 of the mine workers at Soma’s main cemetery, where more than a hundred tightly packed graves have been newly dug.
Much of the population around the town either works in or has relatives employed by the mining industry.
Loudspeakers on street corners used by the local government to announce news, left from the days when internet connections and mobile phones were rare, broadcast the names of the dead and announced funeral times.
The graveyard was so crowded with back-to-back burials that the imam repeatedly had to ask families to pay their final respects quickly to make room for other mourners.
No government officials were in attendance.
“They say they are deeply sorrowed, their hearts are burnt, devastated. Where are they now?” said Emine, a woman in her 50s attending her nephew’s funeral. “Look at all these poor people whose sweethearts died digging money for others. They are alone here.”