Dozens of anxious relatives and friends of 11 miners trapped underground by an explosion in central China gathered outside the site today as rescuers battled tons of coal dust in a bid to reach them.
The number of miners confirmed dead rose by five to 26, state media said.
China’s crisis happened as the world was still celebrating Chile’s successful rescue of 33 miners trapped for more than two months. Chinese media had detailed coverage as the Chilean men emerged to cheers.
Some in China asked whether their own officials would make as much of an effort in a similar disaster and be just as open about the progress of rescue efforts. The test came quickly for China, whose mining industry is the most dangerous in the world.
Yesterday’s blast at the Pingyu Coal & Electric mine occurred as workers were drilling a hole to release pressure from a gas build-up to decrease the risk of explosions, the state work safety administration said.
State media said 70 rescuers had been sent to the site in Henan province after the early-morning explosion.
But hopes of rescuing the remaining trapped workers were fading as they were buried under coal and it could take three or four days to try to find them, said a report by China National Radio.
Rescuers also faced dangerous gas levels and the risk of falling rocks as they worked their way into the mine pit.
The explosion unleashed more than 2,500 tons of coal dust, an engineer for one of the mine’s parent companies, Du Bo, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
A rescue spokesman told Xinhua that workers had located the trapped miners, but must clear tons of coal dust from the mine shaft to reach them.
Today two dozen police officers were stationed outside the mine’s main gate, preventing anyone from entering the site without authorisation. About 50 of the trapped miners’ friends and relatives quietly waited outside, some of them tearful. Murmured discussion of the mine’s poor safety record could be heard.
Another gas blast at the same mine two years ago killed 23 people, state media said.
It was not clear if the miners were alive or how far underground they were trapped in the mine in the city of Yuzhou, about 430 miles south of Beijing.
China Central Television’s news channel had an excited live broadcast from the mine yesterday, but it later did not mention the accident on the main TV evening news.
The gas level inside the mine was 40%, far higher than the normal level of about 1%, state media said. The gas was not specified, but methane is a common cause of mine blasts and coal dust is explosive.
China celebrated its own stunning mine rescue earlier this year, when 115 miners were pulled from a flooded mine in the northern province of Shanxi after more than a week underground.
The miners survived by eating sawdust, tree bark, paper and even coal. Some strapped themselves to the walls of the shafts with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.
But it was a rare bright spot. About 2,600 people were killed in mining accidents last year and the country’s leaders have been making a high-profile push to improve mine safety.