SAVASTEPE, Turkey -- A survivor of Turkey’s worst mining disaster that killed at least 292 people accused mining company officials of negligence, saying Friday outdated oxygen masks were handed out after the explosion and inspections weren’t thorough enough. The mining company has vehemently denied any carelessness.
Erdal Bicak, 24, said he had just ended his shift Tuesday and he had started to go up to the surface when mine managers ordered him back down because there was a problem.
"The company is guilty," Bicak said, saying managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. "The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn’t tell us in time."
His accusations came as Turkish government and mining company officials vehemently denied that negligence was at the root of the country’s worst mining disaster even as opposition lawmakers raised questions about possible lax oversight.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said at least 292 people died in the tragedy in the western town of Soma. Another nine or 10 people are believed to be missing underground while 485 miners escaped or were rescued from the inferno.
Protesting workers have described the Soma disaster as murder, not an accident, because of what they call flawed safety conditions at that mine and others in the country. Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Soma, where about 1,500 demonstrators urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to resign.
The government has asked for a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster to find out what happened and why -- but it appeared that officials had already made up their minds Friday.
"There’s no negligence with respect to this incident," insisted Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party. He said the mine in Soma "was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009."
"Let’s learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes," he said. "(But) this is not the time to look for a scapegoat."
Bicak, however, said the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months before the disaster. He said the inspectors only visit the top 100 meters of the mine and the managers knew that. So, the managers would clean up the top part of the mine and the inspectors never saw what was below, he said.
The miner said the pathways are really narrow and steep down below, and the ceilings are so low miners can’t stand up, he said, adding that’s why it was so hard to get out and that was what the inspectors weren’t seeing.
But Akin Celik, the Soma mining company’s operations manager, echoed the government’s argument.
"There’s no negligence with respect to this incident. We all worked with all our heart and soul. I have not seen anything like this in 20 years," he told reporters.
Their comments raised the question, however, of how the mine could have been checked so often and still have such a deadly fire.
Ibrahim Ali Hasdan, a Soma resident, said he was astonished by claims there was no negligence.
"This statement hurts people’s hearts ... even a young child wouldn’t be convinced by this statement," he said.
The chief prosecutor in the nearby city of Akhisar said prosecutors had begun interviewing some of the injured miners and other witnesses.
Ozgur Ozel, an opposition lawmaker from the Soma region, petitioned parliament in October to hold an inquiry into mine safety but the proposal was voted down. Ozel says there’s a mine accident every three or four months in the Soma region and eleven workers have died in the last three years.
Mine inspections do take place but the owners are tipped off up to a week before, Ozel alleged.
"The main suspicion about it is that there is a relationship between the government and those running this mine and the mine was not being properly supervised" for health and safety issues due to those ties, Ozel told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Ozel’s party has criticized the government for not adopting the International Labor Organization’s convention on mine safety, widely regarded as the industry standard.
"If this had been signed, perhaps the company in Soma would not have reduced its costs ... but 302 lives would still be with us," opposition party legislator Faik Oztrak said.
Joe Drexler of the Global Union Federation visited Turkey several times between 2008 and 2010 to urge government officials to ratify the ILO convention and improve health and safety in the country’s mines.
"I have no doubt that this disaster could have been averted if this convention had been accepted," Drexler told the AP in a telephone interview from Canada.
Funeral prayers were said in mosques throughout Turkey for the victims and soccer fans draped their team’s scarves Friday over some of the graves in Soma.
Erdogan attended one such ceremony in Istanbul. The disaster could hurt his political ambitions -- Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to run for president in the country’s August election after serving as prime minister for the last 11 years.
President Barack Obama called Turkish President Abdullah Gul to convey condolences and offer assistance, a White House statement said.
Yildiz, the energy minister, said the mine’s underground fire had largely been extinguished and carbon monoxide levels had dropped substantially so emergency crews could operate more quickly.
"I believe that we will be able to reach our brothers today," he said.
Celik, the mining official, said thick smoke from the underground fire killed miners who had no gas masks.
"Smoke spread very quickly. It spread instantly," he said. "The distance between where the smoke started and the exit was five minutes. Five minutes."
Bicak, the surviving miner, said he ended up in an area about a kilometer underground with 150 people when he heard an explosion. He said they were given old oxygen masks that he thought hadn’t been checked in many years.
Bicak and a close friend tried to make it to an exit, but there was a lot of smoke, and it was very narrow and steep. He said he and his friend took turns slapping each other to stay conscious.
"I told my friend ‘I can’t go on,"’ Bicak said. "’Leave me here. I’m going to die."’ But his friend said to him, "’No, we’re getting out of here."’
Bicak eventually made it out of the mine with his friend, but doesn’t remember much about the escape because he said he was in a dream-like state, lapsing in and out of consciousness. He said he lost a lot of friends, and that out of the group of 150 in the area he was, only 15 made it out alive.
One of Bicak’s legs was badly injured and he recounted his version of what happened while wearing a cast in a town square with other miners who were holding candles in Savastepe, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Soma.
He said the tragedy spelled the end of his mining career.
"I’m not going to be a miner anymore. God gave me a chance and now I’m done."
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara.
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