HONG KONG--Authorities at the blast-hit Chenjiashan Coalmine in China's northern Shaanxi Province called off rescue operations earlier than reported, sealing the mine shaft and detaining relatives of 166 dead miners in a bid to stop three days of riots and protests.
"They closed up the shaft and wouldn't let anyone down there to save people. They were afraid the rescuers would die," the son of miner Wang Zuoqin, who was killed in the massive explosion early Sunday, said in an interview with RFA's Mandarin service.
The move sparked intense anger among relatives of the dead miners, who have besieged officials at Chenjiashan and the nearby township of Miaowan, smashing windows in government offices and calling for justice, eyewitnesses said.
"The mood is very negative among the relatives," a spokesman for the mine said. "They are out of control."
"This has been going on in the past couple of days. It happened again on a smaller scale today. They surrounded the car, a Mitsubishi, belonging to a Tongchuan municipal official. They sat on the roof of the vehicle, probably damaged a lot of the paintwork," the spokesman told RFA.
The mood is very negative among the relatives. They are out of control.
At a news conference Dec. 1, the head of the Shaanxi provincial coalmining bureau, Huo Shichang, announced that there was no hope of survival for the remaining 166 miners lost in Work Sites 415 and 416 of the Chenjiashan Coalmine.
But state media coverage focused on the grief felt by the relatives, giving a more palatable version of the events leading to the explosion and of the rescue work and investigations that followed, relatives said.
Wang's son said the relatives were angry that mine bosses had forced the miners to work underground where fires were already raging and a dangerous gas buildup had already been reported before the disastrous blast.
"The mine boss did it to get his promised bonus of 400,000 yuan (U.S.$48,000) and a car. If my father hadn't gone down the pit, he would have thrown away 27 years of work in one go," Wang's son said.
They told the relatives to go to a different mine, to Yuhua Mine, to see the bodies. When they got there, there were no bodies. Instead they detained the relatives in that area. They were afraid they would cause trouble.
"They knew it was dangerous underground, and my mother didn't want him to go to work. But they called him on the phone and said if he didn't go, he'd lose his job on the spot." Faced with reporting for work, or losing their livelihoods, the contract laborers had little choice, he said.
Wang's son and widow said many relatives had been lured by the authorities out of the area in the hope of identiying their loved ones' bodies. But when they arrived, there was nothing to see.
"They told the relatives to go to a different mine, to Yuhua Mine, to see the bodies. When they got there, there were no bodies. Instead they detained the relatives in that area. They were afraid they would cause trouble," he said.
The relatives' anger was further fueled by heavy-handed reporting restrictions, which meant that state media glossed over the fact that mine bosses had given up on the rescue attempt far earlier than reported.
There are too many reporters. They all want to tell the reporters what really happened. They've smashed doors, mirrors, flower vases, cars, that sort of thing. The authorities are just trying to protect things, to restrain them, persuade them to leave. You can't use force on them, can you?
While a State Council investigative team had already blamed the accident publicly on the greed of local officials, journalists were prevented from reporting fully on the relatives' allegations.
Wang's son charged that authorities had orchestrated a cover-up in the official media, which reported that more than 60 people were saved up until the rescue operation was called off late Wednesday.
"He had the shaft sealed when there were still more than 140 people down there," Wang's widow said. "They said there were fires underground and that the temperatures were too high for the rescue operation."
"On the third day, they sealed it. Central TV Channel One told lies about it. They said they had saved more than 60 people, and that just over 100 were still unaccounted for. But in fact they only brought up 21 bodies, and more than 140 people were left underground," she told RFA.
At one stage, relatives attacked the provincial head of the propaganda bureau after he tried to stop them telling the truth to reporters. "The propaganda chief wasn't badly hurt," Wang's son said.
Asked what had caused the riots, the Chenjiashan mine spokesman replied: "There are too many reporters. They all want to tell the reporters what really happened. They've smashed doors, mirrors, flower vases, cars, that sort of thing. The authorities are just trying to protect things, to restrain them, persuade them to leave. You can't use force on them, can you?"
Eyewitnesses in the nearby township of Miaowan said angry relatives had besieged local officials, smashing windows in government offices.
"They wanted the township leader to come out and speak with the crowd," a retired worker from the area told RFA. "The contract laborers in the mine were all from this township, Miaowan township. He didn't come out though--he didn't dare."
"The relatives kept them all hiding in the courtyard there, didn't even let them come out for lunch. Finally they let a reporter leave. The leaders were all upstairs, not showing their faces. The police were at the doorway, keeping it closed up. I was there, I saw it. There were quite a lot of relatives,200 or 300," she said.
A local schoolgirl told RFA she had also seen the protest.
Wang Zuoqin's widow and son said they will receive no welfare payments from the mine following his death and may never see his remains. "That's why we agreed to this interview," his son said. "We want the truth to be told."
China's coalmining industry is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Chinese officials say roughly 7,000 workers are killed annually, but international rights groups say the number may be as high as 20,000.
China's coalmines meet 70 percent of the booming economy's energy needs, but coal production comes at a heavy price. In the first six months this year alone, 3,758 people died in mining accidents, according to State Administration of Workplace Safety (SAWS) figures.