November 28, 2004

Chinese Mine Explosion Traps at Least 166

BEIJING - An explosion tore through a coal mine in central China on Sunday, sending smoke billowing from air vents and trapping at least 166 miners in tunnels and shafts below without communications, the government said.

Some 127 workers managed to escaped the state-owned mine, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing the State Bureau of Production Safety.

The blast rocked the state-owned Chenjiashan coal mine in Shaanxi province at 7:20 a.m., when 293 workers were underground, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The explosion was centered around coal pits five miles from the mine entrance, it said.

Most of the miners who escaped were working close to the entrance, Xinhua said, and many suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. Some 41 were hospitalized.

Witnesses said they saw "huge amounts of thick smoke pouring from the mine's ventilation vents," hampering rescue efforts, according to the Web site of the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper.

Staff at Chenjiashan said communications with the trapped miners were cut off, the site said.

On its evening newscast, state television showed ambulances rushing to the scene as huge crowds of people gathered outside the mine's main gate.

President Hu Jintao urged rescuers to employ "all effective measures" to save the trapped workers, China Central Television said.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived at the ASEAN summit in Laos on Sunday, said he was "extremely upset" over the accident.

He said the cause of the explosion would be thoroughly investigated and the government will continue to push for safer working conditions in the mines.

China's mines are the world's most dangerous, with thousands of deaths reported every year due to explosions, fires, cave-ins and flooding often blamed on lax safety rules and lack of required equipment.

The government has vowed to improve conditions and frequently orders mass shutdowns and safety checks after a fatal mine accident.

But despite the crackdown, accidents still happen on a near daily basis. Chinese officials have suggested that a countrywide energy shortage may be pressuring the mining industry to raise coal production.

The worst mining accident in four years occurred last month, when a massive explosion in the Daping Mine in central Henan province left 148 people dead.

It was sparked after mine operators failed to realize that extending the mine's shaft would greatly increase its gas level.

Also Sunday, 16 officials in the northern Hebei province were charged with helping to cover up a massive coal mine explosion June 3 that killed 14 miners and injured 23 others, Xinhua said.

It said the mine owner "collaborated with some local officials" to give a false death toll of one to investigators from the central government. The owner was worried that if the real figure was revealed, authorities would shut down his mine and he would lose more money, Xinhua said.

The officials' misconduct included failing to search passages for more trapped miners and secretly cremating five bodies.