SOMA, Turkey, (Reuters) – Furious Turks heckled Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and jostled his entourage yesterday as protests erupted in several cities over a coal mine disaster in which at least 274 people died, making it the worst industrial accident in the nation’s history.
With rescuers still pulling bodies from the site in western Turkey, anger swept a country that has seen a decade of rapid economic growth but still suffers from one of the world’s worst workplace safety records.
Erdogan expressed his regret after visiting the site in Soma, about 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul, where around 100 miners are thought to be still trapped underground following Tuesday’s fire. “We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain,” he told a news conference.
But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place. “Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.
Angry residents broke windows at the local government offices in Soma, some chanting “Erdogan resign”, while parts of the crowd lining the street booed as the prime minister walked through the town, jostling with members of his entourage.
Protesters later kicked Erdogan’s car as it left the area.
Opponents of Erdogan – who has already faced mass protests against his rule in the past year – have attacked his government for leasing mines to parts of the private sector cosy with the ruling party, and accuse it of ignoring repeated warnings about their safety.
In Istanbul, police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse several thousand people, some wearing miners’ hard hats and headlamps. Police also clashed with demonstrators in the capital Ankara and there were protests in other cities.
Many took to social media to express their outrage at the government’s handling of the crisis. “Beyond ridiculous. Turkish PM cites 19th century Britain to prove mining accidents are ‘typical’,” one user wrote on Twitter.
Fire knocked out power at the mine and shut down ventilation shafts and elevators on Tuesday afternoon. Emergency workers pumped oxygen into the mine to try to keep those trapped alive during a rescue effort that lasted through the night. Thousands of family members and co-workers gathered outside the town’s hospital searching for information on their loved ones.
“We haven’t heard anything from any of them, not among the injured, not among the list of dead,” said one elderly woman, Sengul, whose two nephews worked in the mine along with the sons of two of her neighbours.
“It’s what people do here, risking their lives for two cents … They say one gallery in the mine has not been reached, but it’s almost been a day,” she said.
A mechanical digger opened a row of fresh graves at Soma’s main cemetery. An imam presided over the funeral of six miners as a few hundred mourners wept in silence.
The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the death toll as of 1930 GMT on Wednesday was 274, making it Turkey’s deadliest accident. Late on Tuesday he said 787 workers had been in the mine.