AMASRA, Turkey (AP) — Funerals for miners killed in a coal mine explosion in northern Turkey began Saturday as officials raised the death toll to at least 41 people.
Desperate relatives had waited all night in the cold outside the state-owned Turkish Hard Coal Enterprise’s (TTK) mine in the town of Amasra, in the Black Sea coastal province of Bartin, hoping for news. There were 110 miners working several hundred meters below ground at the time of the explosion on Friday evening.
Their wait turned to devastation by Saturday noon. Women cried at the funeral of miner Selcuk Ayvaz, whose coffin was wrapped in the red and white Turkish flag. Another miner, 28-year-old Aziz Kose, held his newborn baby just days ago. They mostly came from working-class families and went underground to the coal mines to make a living.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived at the scene and said the body of one missing miner had finally been reached, confirming 41 were dead. Erdogan was flanked by officials, miners and rescuers, as he vowed to bring an end to mining disasters, while saying he believes in “fate.”
“We don’t want to see deficiencies or unnecessary risks,” Erdogan said, and added that an investigation would reveal if anyone is responsible for the blast. He then joined funeral prayers for Rahman Ozcelik, 22, at a village where Turkish media said three other miners were also being mourned.
Eleven were injured and hospitalized, with five in serious condition, while 58 others managed to get out of the mine on their own or were rescued unharmed.
Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said rescue efforts were complete. Earlier, he had said that a fire was burning in an area where more than a dozen miners had been trapped.
Preliminary assessments indicated that the explosion was likely caused by firedamp, which is a reference to flammable gases found in coal mines, Donmez said overnight. Three prosecutors were investigating the blast.
A miner who works the day shift said he saw the news and hurried to the site to help with the rescue.
“We saw a frightful scene, it cannot be described, it’s very sad,” said Celal Kara, 40. “They’re all my friends … they all had dreams,” Kara, who has been a miner for 14 years, told The Associated Press after exiting the mine, his face covered in soot.
Ambulances were on standby at the site. Rescue teams were dispatched to the area, including from neighboring provinces, Turkey’s disaster management agency, AFAD, said. Dark smoke rose from the entrance of the mine, which is surrounded by forests.
A mining technician from TTK told broadcaster NTV that his team of rescue and occupational safety personnel arrived at the site Friday night. Ismail Cetin said they went down into the mine and walked about 2½ kilometers (1½ miles) with their kit and stretchers. They recovered nine bodies, whom he called “mine martyrs.”
Countries across the world offered their condolences to Turkey. Greece’s prime minister offered rescue assistance even though relations between the two neighbors have recently been particularly tense.
Separately, Turkish police said in a statement that legal action would be taken against 12 people who allegedly shared provocative content about the mine explosion to incite hate on social media.
Turkey’s worst mine disaster was in 2014, when 301 miners died after a fire erupted inside a coal mine in the town of Soma, in the west of the country. Five months later, 18 miners were killed in central Karaman province after a flood in a coal mine.
The head of DISK, a left-wing trade union, said in a statement they were “sad and angry” because deaths were preventable and the union’s safety suggestions were overlooked. Even though more inspections were mandated after the Soma tragedy, DISK’s leader Arzu Cerkezoglu claimed some precautions were ignored for profitability, calling Friday’s explosion a “massacre.”
Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.