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SOMA, Turkey — The Associated Press – Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 201 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Istanbul, at the time of the explosion and 363 of them had been rescued so far.
“Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz said. Turkey’s worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
As bodies were brought out on stretchers, rescue workers pulled blankets back from the faces of the dead to give jostling crowds of anxious family members a chance to identify victims. One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognized one of the dead, and police restrained him from climbing into an ambulance with the body.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half-staff. Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania and planned to visit Soma instead.
At least 80 miners were injured, including four who were in serious condition, Yildiz told reporters in Soma, were he was overseeing operations by more than 400 rescuers.
The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.
The minister said the fire was still blazing inside the mine, 18 hours after the blast. The air around the mine swirled with smoke and soot.The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, Yildiz said.
An injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.
Yildiz said rescue operations were hindered because the mine had not completely been cleared of gas.
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