Loudspeakers broadcast the names of the dead and excavators dug mass graves in this close-knit Turkish mining town on Thursday, while protesters gathered in major cities as grief turned to anger following the country’s deadliest industrial disaster.
Rescuers were still trying to reach parts of the coal mine in Soma, 480 km southwest of Istanbul, almost 48 hours after fire knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, trapping hundreds underground.
At least 282 people have been confirmed dead, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning, and hopes are fading of pulling out any more alive of the 100 or so still thought to be inside.
Anger has swept a country that has boasted a decade of rapid economic growth under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government but which still suffers from one of the world’s worst workplace safety standards.
Residents heckled Erdogan and jostled his entourage on Wednesday as he toured the town, angry at what they see as the government’s cosiness with mining tycoons, its failure to ensure safety and a lack of information on the rescue effort.
Access to the mine entrance was blocked by paramilitary police roadblocks several kilometres away ahead of a visit by President Abdullah Gul on Thursday, as officers searched cars.
“We came here to share the grief and wait for our friends to come out but we were not allowed. Is the president’s pain greater than ours?” asked Emre, an 18-year-old trying to get to the mine.
Erdogan, who announced three days of national mourning from Tuesday, expressed regret for the disaster but said such accidents were not uncommon, and turned defensive when asked if sufficient precautions had been in place.
Newspaper Radikal published an amateur video clip on its website appearing to show Erdogan saying “Come here and boo me” as he walked through a hostile crowd in the town on
Turkish newspapers also printed photographs they said were of an Erdogan aide kicking a protester who was on the ground and being held by forces police. The papers identified the aide as Yusuf Yerkel.
OUT OF TOUCH
Erdogan, who is expected to stand in a presidential election in August, has weathered mass protests and a corruption scandal over the past year, and his AK Party dominated local polls in March despite the political turbulence. But his fractious handling of a disaster hitting the sort of working class, conservative community which makes up the core of his supporter base is further evidence, his opponents say, that he is a leader out of touch.
Four of Turkey’s labour unions called for a national one-day strike, furious at what they see as a sharp deterioration in working conditions since formerly state-run mines including the one in Soma were leased to private firms.
Several thousand people staged a sit-down protest in front of police water cannon in Istanbul, holding banners with slogans including “It is not accident, It is not fate, it is murder” and “Our hearts are burning in Soma”.
Police fired water cannon to break up a demonstration in Izmir, the nearest large city to Soma, and there were reports of protests in the southern cities of Mersin and Antalya.
Around a thousand people from various trade unions gathered in Ankara to march on the labour ministry, some wearing miners’ helmets and waving banners showing the image of Che Guevara. “The fires of Soma will burn AKP,” and “AKP murderers” they chanted, as police looked on.
History’s worst mine disasters
1942: China’s northeast is the site of the world’s deadliest coal mine disaster when an accident kills 1,549 miners in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during World War II.
1906: A dust explosion in a French mine kills 1,099 workers.
1913: The worst mining disaster in British history was when 439 miners were killed in a gas explosion at the Senghenydd colliery in South Wales.
1960: Coalbrook, South Africa, Clydesdale Colliery mine collapse kills 437.
1962: Disaster at the Luisenthal coal mine in Volklingen, West Germany, kills 299.
1909: 259 men killed in one of the US’s worst coal mine disasters, at the St. Paul Coal Co. mine, Illinois. AP