SOMA, Turkey — As hopes began to fade Wednesday for hundreds of coal miners still trapped underground in a hellish explosion, antigovernment 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.
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 by name.
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 on Tuesday that 787 workers were listed as being in the mine, but because of a shift change that was underway when the explosion happened, the exact number still trapped was uncertain.
The dirt road leading here would normally be used by trucks loaded with tons of coal. On Wednesday, however, military police had set up a cordon and it resembled a huge parking lot for ambulances, police vehicles, and private cars.
Miners in hard hats, their clothes smeared with dirt and dust, wiped sweat and grime from their faces as they walked away from the rescue site, looking exhausted and overwhelmed.
“We came here as soon as we heard about an explosion,” said a 28-year-old miner whose cousin was trapped inside. “We saved many but most of the stranded were dead. I don’t want to say more.”
The miner refused to give his name because he said he needed approval from his employer.
Some of the miners confirmed officials’ fears about further fatalities.
“Even after only two sections, where machines and people operated together, were emptied, the death toll is still higher than what has been announced,” said Ertan Yildiz, a miner who has been assisting emergency workers. “There are other sections where we entirely rely on manpower and have no idea how many people were stuck there at time of the blast.”
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.
“Even with a gas mask, it is hard to survive,” Sami Kilic, a miner who has been working at the Soma mine for nine years, told the news channel CNN Turk. “When a power distribution unit explodes, power goes off; when power goes off, ventilation breaks down; when ventilation breaks down, air circulation stops, and so do chances to live.”
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.
Families sat quietly at the courtyard of a small company building used for training and refused to talk to reporters.