On Thursday, rescue teams recovered the bodies of eight more victims of Turkey’s deadliest mining disaster, raising the death toll to 283.
Although 363 miners have been rescued in the western mining town of Soma, some 150 more have not been accounted for.
No miner has been brought out alive since early Wednesday.
President Abdullah Gül was in Soma on Thursday, visiting the families of the victims. A female protester yelled out, as he left the hospital, “May you also burn.” Anger over the disaster has been mounting both in Soma and in other parts of the country.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was forced to take refuge in a grocery store during his visit to the area on Wednesday after angry crowds called him a murderer and a thief and clashed with police.
An aide to the prime minister, identified as Yusuf Yerel, kicked a protester being held down on the ground by gendarmes during the scuffles. Photos of the incident were printed in Turkish newspapers on Thursday.
On Wednesday Erdoğan downplayed the disaster, which has added to the public anger in many cities. The prime minister said that mining accidents were commonplace and cited examples from other countries — most of which were from the 19th century. Protests broke out across several cities in Turkey and Turkish trade unions declared a one-day strike in protest of the mine disaster. Commemoration ceremonies have also been held across the country.
In Soma, bodies pulled out of the mine have been kept at a cold-air depot normally used to store food. Family members said most of the bodies are swollen and that it is very difficult to identify the dead.
Halil Coşkun, whose son has been missing since the start of the disaster, was on the verge of tears outside the cold air depot on Thursday, shouting at officials. He said his son İsmail Coşkun was 28 years old, with a child and a pregnant wife due to give birth in 20 days. The grieving father accused Soma Madencilik, the owner of the mine, of using cheap materials in the power units inside the mine. “The power unit had broken down before, and they didn’t fix it. This power unit costs TL 50,000. Is that the price of the life of a human being?” he asked.
Miners in the district said the fire was still blazing on Thursday, and that rescue operations were being suspended frequently as the fire made it too risky for rescuers to pull out bodies. Miners and their relatives were also angered by tight security measures around the mine for President Gül’s visit, cordoning off the area and making it difficult to observe rescue efforts. The government has said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion. Scores of those rescued suffered injuries.
Authorities have said this week’s disaster came after an explosion and fire at a power distribution unit and that most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. There have been, however, speculative claims that the fire started when coal dust in the mine self-ignited after too much oxygen was pumped into the mine in an effort to increase production. According to this explanation, the fire caused the explosion and the continuing blaze used up the oxygen inside the mine and caused power cuts, which rendered elevators unusable.
The death toll has now exceeded that of a 1992 gas explosion which killed 263 workers near Turkey’s Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
Another person facing an agonizing wait outside the depot is Hüseyin Acar, a 77-year-old former miner, who said his grandson, 31-year-old Talip Özden, was among the missing. “I haven’t been able to find my grandson dead or alive in three days,” he said. Other family members have also been tirelessly waiting outside the makeshift morgue, with exhaustion and grief visible on their faces. Acar said the officials’ claims that inspections had taken place at the mine were a lie. “They still use welding equipment using an oxygen tube. Everybody knows that. When the inspectors arrive, they [mine managers] take the LPG tubes and the flammable material outside. Nobody should try to lie to us saying inspections are carried out.”
Social security expert Erhan Nacar said the state has failed to force mine owners to take the necessary precautions. “In mines, the place we call the power unit is protected with a reinforced structure and normally even a dynamite explosion would have no impact,” he said.
Many events across the country, including the Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day celebrations held on May 19, have been canceled due to the Soma disaster. The 33rd edition of the annual parade by Turks in New York was also be canceled.
Erdoğan has promised that the tragedy will be investigated down to the “smallest detail” and that “no negligence will be overlooked.”
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor work safety conditions. Tuesday’s explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Security said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, and that no safety violations were detected. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has said that Erdoğan’s ruling party recently voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents in the mines around Soma.