More than 230 people have died in a coal mine accident in western Turkey, dozens more are injured, and hundreds are still unaccounted for after a transformer explosion triggered a fire, trapping people inside.
At least 787 people are believed to have been inside the mine, about 280 miles west of Ankara when the accident happened late Tuesday night. Initial reports claimed that just 17 people had died, but the death toll has since skyrocketed, and with time running out to reach people trapped in the mine over a mile underground, the accident is shaping up to be one of the deadliest in the nation’s history. Less than 400 people have, so far, been accounted for. Although oxygen is being pumped underground, carbon monoxide poisoning is believed to have already claimed many lives.
“We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey,” Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters on the scene.
This is not the first time Turkey has suffered through such a tragedy. Just four years ago, 30 miners died in an explosion in Zonguldak on the Black Sea. The nation’s worst mining accident was in 1992, in the same area. That incident claimed over 270 lives.
The International Labour Organization ranked Turkey third-worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012 and worst among European countries. According to ILO, over 1,000 lost their lives in Turkish mines between 2002 and 2012. The accident has renewed pressure on the government to address what opposition party leaders say has been a dramatic drop in safety standards in the area at mines once run by the state that are now in private hands.
In April, Turkey’s ruling party blocked an opposition attempt to initiate a parliamentary investigation into the safety of the mines in the Soma area, which were suspected of putting workers safety at risk through cost cutting measures. The mine where the explosion happened on Tuesday was last inspected in March.
“I’m going to renew that parliamentary investigation demand today,” Hursit Gunes, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party told Reuters. ” If (the government) has been warned about this and they did nothing, then people will be angry, naturally. The opposition warned them. But there’s unbelievable lethargy on this issue.”
Soma Komur Isletmeleri, the company that owns the mine, is keeping quiet for now, only saying that an investigation would be undertaken.
“Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones,” the owners said in a statement.
Protests in front of the Istanbul headquarters of Soma Komur Isletmeleri are expected in coming days.
Turkey will observe three days of mourning.