11/30/2004, 00.00
CHINA

Coal mine explosion: an announced tragedy

Fire raging underground announced the explosion but management threatened miners with punishment or job suspension.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Scmp) – Miners working at the site of Sunday's fatal coal mine blast in Shaanxi had been ordered back underground a week ago even though management knew there was a fire raging below.

The death toll in a coal mine explosion in central China has risen to 63, with 103 miners missing and with no hope to find some still alive, as an underground fire and toxic fumes released by the blast hampered rescue work.

The brother of one missing employee, a man surnamed Wang, said experienced miners initially refused to return to work underground after the fire broke out but complied when management threatened them with punishment or job suspension.

Mr Wang said his brother claimed the mine did not want to stop production during the fire and had insisted on higher output.

The mother of one mine worker told that her son had worked with a fire-fighting team throughout last week to put out the underground blaze. Many relatives of the victims said they needed an explanation from the mine.

Tongchuan government and Chenjiashan mine officials were unavailable to comment on whether they had known about a fire before the explosion.

An editor said the newspaper had sent reporters to cover the disaster but had been banned from talking to family members of victims and from filing their own stories. "We were asked to run follow-up stories, but all we can use are those from Xinhua or China Central Television," the editor said.

Coal miner-turned-photographer Song Chao worked a Shandong pit for six years and said safety was not a big issue. "We worked six hours a day underground and were paid up to 3,000 yuan per month," Mr Song said. "It's really a high income for rural areas so we don't take safety too seriously."

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