Fear and anger in Turkey as safety questioned and miners mourned

As investigation unfolds, effects of Soma tragedy are only beginning to be felt

A woman mourns at the grave of a miner who died in the  Soma disaster earlier this month. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

A woman mourns at the grave of a miner who died in the Soma disaster earlier this month. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

 

A miner at Turkey’s stricken Soma coal mine has told The Irish Times he never participated in safety training in the time Soma Holding has run the operation. Local miner Bayram, who asked not to be fully identified citing concerns for his safety, also claimed several miners began work in the mine just three days before the recent accident there and received “no preparation”.

On May 13th, 301 miners at the coal mine in western Turkey died after an explosion trapped hundreds of workers in the country’s worst industrial accident. A visit by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overshadowed by an indifferent speech and his aide’s kicking of a protesting miner, has fuelled anti-government demonstrations in Soma and across Turkey.

The government has pointed the finger of responsibility at the mine operator, Soma Coal Enterprises, a subsidiary of Soma Holding, and the company’s chief executive and general manager were arrested on May 19th.

Bayram and other mine workers claim that safety inspections were known to the mine operators well in advance and, separately, that miners were given certification without properly completing training courses.

Soma Coal Enterprises has denied negligence in the May 13th disaster which also saw 122 workers injured.

Bayram, who said he is unable to ever return to mining work because of the psychological trauma he has suffered, believes that some miners picked up safety training certificates without properly completing courses. “Those who started new, they were sent to courses, but they were more sent to get certificates; there was no real course or training,” he said.

Training classes Celal Bayar University, which offers training classes to employees of several local mining companies at a vocational school in Soma, was responsible for handing out certificates to miners, according to an English language teacher in Soma interviewed by this newspaper who refused to be fully identified. The university said last Wednesday staff were unavailable for comment, while an instructor at the university that worked as a shift manager for Soma Coal Inc during the 1990s didn’t return emails or phone calls from The Irish Times.

Representatives at Soma Coal Enterprises’ head office in Istanbul said they were unable to answer questions about the miners’ claims on Wednesday. Several phone calls to the company’s office in Soma went unanswered this week.

Accord PR, a public relations firm headquartered in the UK, said it represented Soma Holding until Sunday. “We are not working with Soma Holding in this period . . . We terminated our contract mutually,” said Bilgi Demiral, a brand manager at Accord PR in Istanbul.

Soma Holding began operating in the coal-rich Manisa region in western Turkey in 1984 and took over the Eynez coal mine, where this month’s accident took place, in September 2009, according to the company’s website.

The mine has a capacity to produce 2.5 million tonnes of coal per year.Though the official death toll stands at 301, workers in the mine at the time of the accident claim the figure could be higher.

“The fire started at 14.50, we gathered at around 15.30, at 18.00 where we were transported with the services buses there was a name count,” said Bayram. “At this time 580 people were missing, which means they were still underground. I don’t know where they are, whether they are all still in the mines, but there are still people missing.”

Soma Coal Enterprises engineer Mehmet Utkan (25) was interviewed by Habervesaire, a news portal of the Istanbul Bilgi University’s department of communications, immediately after the accident. He also contests the official death toll from the May 13th disaster. “We know that it is above 450. So far the confirmed number is above 400. These are the figures that people are talking about.”

Safety inspections Utkan also claims irregularities over safety inspections were widespread. He says he was off duty on the day of the explosion but immediately returned to Soma to assist in the rescue effort.

“The inspections are supposed to be conducted without notice. However, one week before the arrival of the inspector, I already know where he will stay. Inspections are supposed to be like raids. Here, they are conducted by invitation,” he told Habervesaire.

The cause of the fire inside the mine has been disputed. Initially, the mine operators said an explosion in a power distribution unit had led to a major fire. However, at a press conference in Soma last Friday, it said “overheating led to a collapse” in a different area of the mine. An initial report quoted by the chief prosecutor investigating the accident made a different claim, saying the fire was caused by the oxidation of coal.

Turkey’s labour and social security minister, Faruk Celik, told the country’s parliament on Wednesday the mine in Soma has been subjected to eight scheduled and eight spot checks. A 17-member parliamentary committee is to be set up to investigate responsibility for the accident.

Effects of tragedy As the investigation unfolds, the effects of the tragedy in Soma are only beginning to be felt. Twenty-two year-old Tayyip Senlik studied banking at university level, but failed to find a job in that sector and instead took a job at the afflicted mine in Soma. According to his brother, Ramazan, also a miner, Tayyip was rescued shortly after the mine explosion happened, but returned to help save his colleagues.

Soma, a town of about 100,000 people, is today beset by fear and anger. After now-banned street protests broke out last week, demonstrators and lawyers representing miners’ families were detained by riot police.

“There is lots of fear in Turkey, but after this point with my brother lying in the cemetery,” said Ramazan, “I am only afraid of God. Who else should I fear in this situation?”

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