SOMA, Turkey — Rescue workers removed the last remaining bodies from a stricken mine here Saturday afternoon as the death toll in Turkey’s worst mining accident rose to 301 people, according to the prime minister’s office.
The final recovery efforts were hampered by a fire that broke out underground Saturday morning, as well as the leakage of methane gas, according to the energy minister, Taner Yildiz. Some of the 17 bodies removed overnight were so badly burned that DNA testing will be required to identify them, he said.
Smoke could be seen rising near an entrance to the mine Saturday. For the first time since the accident four days ago, there were no relatives of victims seen waiting. Some of the families moved to a nearby state hospital, to await the results of the DNA tests.
With so many dead, the tragedy rippled for miles around the coal mine, affecting towns and tiny villages in a region where thousands of men work in the industry.
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Public anger was focused on the facility’s owners, who were accused of shirking safety measures to make the mine more profitable, and on Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose abrasive response to the accident during a visit here last week infuriated a region in mourning.
During protests against Erdogan’s visit, an aide to Erdogan was photographed kicking a demonstrator who was being held on the ground by military police officers. Erdogan himself responded to the heckling by defiantly taunting protesters.
Prosecutors are investigating the accident, which occurred when a fire tore through the mine.
The mine owners, who have denied any negligence, have speculated that unexplained “warming” in the mine sparked the fire, without providing further details. They conceded that there were no safe rooms in the mine where workers could take shelter, but asserted that they were not required by Turkish law.
Engineers who worked in the mine, however, have faulted the management of the facility, saying that poorly insulated cables there may have caught fire, sparking a larger conflagration in power distribution units.
Speaking on Saturday afternoon, Yildiz, the energy minister, said that the investigation into the cause was continuing and that “primary inspections were done, as inspectors went as far as they could.” He said labor inspectors would “gradually reach” deeper sections of the mine.
“Our mining world has many, many lessons to learn,” he said. “This has been a highly painful experience for us.”
On Saturday, Turkey’s labor ministry announced benefits for injured miners and the families of those who died. Injured miners will be paid the equivalent of roughly $1,200 a month for at least three months — almost double what many miners were paid monthly. The initial death benefits announced ranged from about $500 a month to about $1,000 a month, and will be permanent, officials said.
On Saturday, volunteers flocked to a village especially hard hit by the accident. At least 11 men from Elmadere, a town of about 250 people, were killed in the accident.
As the volunteers — who came in buses from Istanbul and other towns — passed out toys and candy to the village’s children, residents fretted about a future without their miners.
“We’ve tried cattle breeding, it failed. We tried tobacco, it failed,” said Ali Suay, 57, whose 34-year-old son died in the mine. “Nothing provided us enough income.”
At the entrance to the mine, Cevat Altuntas, who had worked as a miner for 30 years, said the authorities focused on safety only after accidents.
“This is how mining goes in Turkey,” he said. “Unless our fingers are bleeding, we don’t take precautions.”