Hopes fade for trapped miners in China

 

More than 170 Chinese coal minerstrapped in flooded shafts have slim hopes of survival, but officials said they would press on with frantic rescue efforts after one of the nation's worst mine disasters.

Angry relatives of the miners in the eastern province Shandong said more could have been done to protect the 172 miners that are pinned down after the rain-swollen Wen River overcame flood defenses and surged down the shaft on Friday. Nine others were trapped in a shaft nearby.

By early today, rescuers had sealed a more than 50-metre (160-foot) gash in the levee after hundreds of troops piled sacks of cement, trees, rocks and even trucks into the gap.

Officials said the breach in the levee had to be closed before the water in the mine shafts could be pumped out and the rescue operations begun.

"The levee has been restored, this is the first step which is good," said Wang Dequan, spokesman for Tai'an city government, which oversees Xintai.

"Now we are now preparing to pump water out of the mine before sending rescue workers into the mines," he said.

However, Wang said officials were still waiting for larger pumps from neighboring provinces to speed those efforts.

"There is a lot of water to pump out," Wang said.

Officials acknowledged hopes were dim for most, if not all, of the 172 men trapped down the Huayuan Mining Corp. shaft, which goes as deep as 860 meters (2,800 feet). Deputy province governor Wang Junmin said 150 of them were far below the surface.

"I'd guess that the miners down the shaft have no hope of survival," said the chief rescue officer, Zhu Wenyu, according to state media.

Family members who gathered outside the company's headquarters in this dusty mining town complained about safety.

"They don't look at miners as people," said a man surnamed Liu, whose 25 year-old brother was missing. "The company knew the levee was weak, but still did nothing to strengthen it."

Many relatives were concerned the company would blame the accident on the heavy rainfall in order to lower its responsibility and the potential compensation paid out.

Chinarelies on coal for most of its energy needs, pushing coal prices to record levels in the mainland, the world's top producer and consumer of the fuel.

That demand for coal to feed rapid economic growth in the world's fourth-largest economy has led some mine operators to push production beyond safe limits, despite Beijing's efforts to crack down on corruption and lax enforcement of standards.

In past number of days, more than 200 mm (8 inches) of rain have fallen in Xintai, about 570 km (350 miles) southeast of Beijing.

Last year, 4,746 people were killed in thousands of blasts, floods and other mining accidents. While this year's record had been improving, the level is far worse than in other major coal-producing nations.