High temperatures hamper rescue efforts
At least 32 have died and a further five were missing following a massive gas explosion at a coal mine in the northeastern Chinese city of Jixi. Hope is dwindling that the five still trapped are alive, Chinese media reported on Tuesday.
The blast, which ripped through the Baixin coal mine in the industrial province of Heilongjiang in the early hours of Monday morning, had resulted in collapsed bedrock, high temperatures, and poisonous gases, witnesses said.
"We can't get down there because the temperature is so hot," a worker at the mine told RFA Hong Kong correspondent Kang Cheng. "We found eight bodies, but we haven't brought them up to the surface yet."
He said investigations had already begun to determine the cause of the blast, which came after the mine's owners ignored a municipal order to halt production for safety reasons. He said local city and provincial leaders had rushed to the scene of the disaster.
RFA has learned that the Baixing mine was very poorly ventilated. On Feb. 6, an inspection by the coal industry authorities of Jixi City found eight cases of potential hazards, and the mine was then ordered to close and fix the problems. However, the mine later resumed operations without approval from the authorities.
A total of seven rescue teams, each consisting of 10 rescuers, have been working the shaft in turns since the explosion, which occurred when the miners were working in the shaft about 300 meters (1,000 feet) below ground.
The chances of finding any more survivors among the five people still missing were "slim," according to Chinese media reports.
The mine's manager had been put in custody, Xinhua news agency quoted a police officer as saying. It did not specify if any charges were being prepared against him.
Safety standards in China's mines are among the lowest in the world, with a total of 7,197 deaths reported in the first 10 months of 2003, which is equivalent to around 24 deaths a day. Most of these deaths occurred in coal pits.
China announced in November 2003 that it would reopen nearly 2,000 coal mines ordered shut after a series of fatal accidents, in an attempt to address relentless demand for energy.
The price of coal has risen dramatically since September because of serious coal shortages at many power stations, steel works, and cokeries.
Coal accounted for 87 percent of all fuel consumed in the power sector in 2000, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency.