SOMA, Turkey — Rescuers battled fire and deadly carbon monoxide gas on Wednesday to reach coal miners trapped underground after at least 245 were killed in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkey in decades. Despite the extensive rescue operation, a senior official said hopes of finding survivors were “dimming.”
As the news grew more grim, a violent protest broke out in Soma, the neighboring town, where thousands of people have gathered in hopes of getting news of relatives and friends who are unaccounted for, news agencies reported. Many family members have complained about a lack of information from the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and local emergency agencies.
More than 200 miners were thought to still be underground after an explosion in a power distribution unit on Tuesday afternoon set off a fire that was still burning on Wednesday. The death toll of 245 by Wednesday evening was the highest in a Turkish mining disaster since 1992, when 263 workers died in a gas explosion at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea.
“We are worried that this death toll will rise,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters in Soma, 75 miles northeast of the Aegean port of Izmir. “I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts.”
“We are dealing with an incident that might result with the highest worker loss ever in Turkey,” Mr. Yildiz said, according to Turkish news reports. “We still want to hope that miners have found small caves to hide in to breathe and survive.”
The dirt road leading here would normally be used by trucks loaded with tons of coal. On Wednesday, however, military police had set up a cordon and it resembled a huge parking lot for ambulances, police vehicles and private cars.
Miners with hard hats, their clothes smeared in dirt and dust, wiped sweat and grime from their faces as they walked away from the rescue site, looking exhausted and overwhelmed.
“We came here as soon as we heard about an explosion,” said a 28-year-old miner whose cousin was trapped inside. “We saved many but most of the stranded were dead. I don’t want to say more.” The miner refused to give his name because he said he needed approval from his employer.
Some of them confirmed officials’ fears about further fatalities.
“Even after only two sections, where machines and people operated together, were emptied, the death toll is still higher than what has been announced,” said Ertan Yildiz, a miner who has been assisting emergency workers. “There are other sections where we entirely rely on manpower and have no idea how many people were stuck there at time of the blast.”
By Wednesday, 360 workers had been brought to safety by hundreds of rescuers, including some miners who had survived the explosion, according to the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency. But some parts of the facility remained inaccessible.
“Even with a gas mask, it is hard to survive,” Sami Kilic, a miner who has been working at the Soma mine for nine years, told the news channel CNN Turk. “When a power distribution unit explodes, power goes off; when power goes off, ventilation breaks down; when ventilation breaks down, air circulation stops, and so do chances to live.”
Mr. Kilic said that miners were trained to use gas masks in emergencies on the assumption that they would reach fresh air in 45 minutes.
“We received training as to how to reach up to fresh air in 45 minutes wearing a gas mask,” Mr. Kilic said. “You cannot climb up 1.5 kilometers in 45 minutes.”
Bayram Yilmaz, a 44-year old miner who recently quit working, said the death toll was much higher than officials had announced. “At least 770 people went down, and none of us could yet reach the exact location of the blast,” he said.
Hours after the explosion, rescuers could be seen in video images from the mine pulling the dead and wounded to the surface as smoke rose over the scene. Miners with blackened faces were helped out of the mine.
The prime minister’s office in Ankara declared three days of mourning, NTV, a private news network reported. Mr. Erdogan canceled a visit to Albania, scheduled for Wednesday, and went instead to the scene of the disaster. He arrived with a massive security escort and inspected rescue efforts after talking to officials in charge, but left without making a public statement.
President Abdullah Gul put off a trip to China scheduled for Thursday to travel to Soma.
The political ramifications of the accident are not clear but there are already stirrings of complaint that Turkey’s rush to prosperity has left many behind to face perilous labor conditions. In Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Reuters reported, two left-wing opposition newspaper vendors read out headlines to commuters. “Turkey is a graveyard for workers,” one said, and “This wasn’t an accident, this was negligence.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Yildiz said that many, perhaps most, of the miners had died of smoke inhalation. “We’re dealing with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide poisoning,” he said on television. Although rescue efforts were underway, “time is against us,” he added.
The explosion set off a fire that blocked exits from the mine, Cengiz Ergun, the mayor of the nearby town of Manisa, said in a telephone interview with CNN Turk. The area has some of the world’s largest coal reserves.
The rescuers sought to save those still trapped by pumping oxygen into the mine. Thousands of family members and fellow miners gathered at the nearest hospital. The precise number of miners still underground was unclear. Mr. Yildiz said on Tuesday that 787 workers were listed as being in the mine, but because of a shift change that was underway when the explosion happened, the exact number still trapped was uncertain.
As the death toll mounted, rescuers used a cold storage warehouse and freezer trucks as makeshift morgues, news reports said.