SOMA, Turkey — As hopes began to fade Wednesday for hundreds of coal miners still trapped underground in a hellish explosion, anti-government protests broke out across the country, while victims’ families demanded answers in what is emerging as perhaps the worst industrial accident in the country’s history.
Thousands of people have gathered here in Soma, the nearest town to the mine, in hopes of getting news of relatives and friends who are unaccounted for. Their frustrations erupted in a rock-throwing protest in front of the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that was broken up by the police in clouds of tear gas. Demonstrations also broke out in Ankara, the capital, and in Istanbul.
The political ramifications of the accident are not clear, but there are already stirrings of complaint that Turkey’s rush to prosperity has left many behind to face perilous labor conditions.
In Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Reuters reported, two left-wing opposition newspaper vendors read out headlines to commuters.
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“Turkey is a graveyard for workers,” one said, and, “This wasn’t an accident, this was negligence.”
Many relatives of the miners have complained about a lack of information from the government and local emergency agencies.
“No official came here to talk to us, explain what’s going on,” said the aunt of a 25-year-old miner, who asked not to be identified.
Near the mine entrance, mournful family members watched mostly in silence as rescue workers slowly removed bodies, some of them charred, from the mine’s fiery and poisonous depths. As the rescue operation dragged on, the official death toll rose to 274.
More than 200 miners were thought to still be underground after an explosion in a power- distribution unit Tuesday set off a fire that was still burning Wednesday.
The death toll was the highest seen in a Turkish mining disaster, surpassing the 263 workers who died in a gas explosion at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea in 1992.
“We are worried that this death toll will rise,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters in Soma, about 75 miles northeast of the Aegean port of Izmir. “I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts.”
Yildiz said Tuesday that 787 workers were listed as being in the mine, but because of a shift change when the explosion happened, the exact number still trapped was uncertain.
Erdogan canceled a trip to Albania to visit the scene of the disaster and express sympathy to the families of the dead.
“We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain,” he told a news conference afterward.
In the face of criticism from opponents and families of the miners, though, the often thin-skinned leader grew testy.
“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time,” he said. “It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world.”
The government’s critics say it has long had a cozy relationship with mining interests and as recently as two weeks ago it defeated an effort to establish a parliamentary commission to address safety issues in the coal industry.
By Wednesday, 360 workers had been brought to safety by hundreds of rescuers, including some miners who had survived the explosion, according to the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency. But some parts of the facility remained inaccessible.
Smoke continued to rise from the entrance to one tunnel. A group of miners halted rescue efforts after they were exposed to intense carbon monoxide from a fire burning 1,300 feet below ground.