Turkish miner who survived says company to blame
SAVASTEPE, Turkey (AP) — Miner Erdal Bicak believes he knows why so many of his colleagues died in Turkey's worst mining disaster: company negligence.
And he knows one other thing — he's never going back down any mine again.
Bicak, 24, had just ended his shift Tuesday and was making his way to the surface when managers ordered him back underground because of a problem in the Soma coal mine in western Turkey.
"The company is guilty," Bicak told The Associated Press, adding that managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. "The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn't tell us in time."
The miner also said government safety inspectors never visited the lower reaches of the Soma mine and have no idea of how bad conditions get as workers trudge deeper underground.
Bicak, whose leg was badly injured and in a cast, recounted his miraculous escape late Friday while at a candle-lit vigil for Soma victims in the town square of nearby Savastepe.
Public anger has surged in the wake of the Soma coal mine inferno that killed 301 miners. Police used tear gas and water cannon Friday to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Soma who were demanding that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government resign. In Istanbul, police broke up a crowd who lit candles to honor the Soma victims.
On Saturday, police detained lawyers after they scuffled with police who had increased security at Soma to prevent new protests, NTV television reported. It said the lawyers, who came to offer legal advice to victims, had objected to police identity checks.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said crews located the bodies of the last two missing miners on Saturday, raising the death toll to 301. He said 485 miners escaped or were rescued.
"Our (search) efforts will be coming to an end," Yildiz said. "However, our friends will be scouring all corners (of the mine) once again" just to make sure of the death toll.
Bicak said he ended up about a kilometer (.6 miles) underground with 150 people Tuesday afternoon 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. The path was very narrow and steep, with ceilings so low that miners can't stand up, making it difficult to leave quickly. He and his friend took turns slapping each other to stay conscious.
"I told my friend 'I can't go on. Leave me here. I'm going to die,'" Bicak said. But his friend said to him, "'No, we're getting out of here.'"
Bicak eventually made it out of the mine with his friend — by then lapsing in and out of consciousness. He said he lost many friends and out of the 150 miners he was working with, only 15 made it out alive.
Thick smoke from the underground fire killed many miners who had no gas masks, according to Akin Celik, the Soma mine's operations manager.
The Milliyet newspaper said Saturday it saw a preliminary report by a mine safety expert who went into the Soma mine that suggested smoldering coal caused the mine's roof to collapse. The report said the tunnel's support beams were made of wood, not metal, and there were not enough carbon monoxide sensors.
Labor Minister Faruk Celik said investigations have been launched by both prosecutors and officials but "there is no report that has emerged yet."
Government and mining officials insisted Friday, however, that the disaster was not due to negligence.
"There's no negligence with respect to this incident," said Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party. He said the mine in Soma "was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009."
Celik, the mining official, echoed those words.
"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.
Bicak said the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months ago. He said mine managers know that government inspectors only visit the top 100 meters (yards) of the mine, so they just clean up that part and the inspectors never see the narrow, steep, cramped sections below.
Mine owners are tipped off up to a week before an inspection anyway, said Ozgur Ozel, an opposition lawmaker from the Soma region who has criticized the government for not adopting the International Labor Organization's convention on mine safety.
Bicak says now that his mining career is over.
"I'm not going to be a miner anymore. God gave me a chance and now I'm done," he said.
Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara.
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