Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has visited the coal mine where a horrific explosion and fire killed and injured hundreds of worker yesterday, announcing that the death toll from the accident is now at 232. A total of 190 workers are still unaccounted for, and Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said that hopes of their rescue "are diminishing."
The Associated Press reports that the explosion occurred during a shift change, meaning that more workers were in the mine than usual. Last night, Reuters noted that the explosion was likely caused by an electrical fault. The blast triggered a power outage that prevented elevators from running, leaving the workers trapped in the carbon-monoxide filled mine. It wasn't clear at the time whether the fire was caused by an unrelated incident. Altogether, there were 787 people in the mine at the time of the explosion. So far, 363 have been rescued.
Erdogan declared three days of mourning for the dead today. But the gesture is a small one in a country where mining accidents are not uncommon, and the public is responding to the event with anger towards the government, planning protests and strikes to mark the event:
Many #turkish labor unions to go on strike tomorrow to protest mine tragedy and the government— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) May 14, 2014
Turkey has seen a number of protests against the government since last year, when people demonstrated against the razing of a symbolic park in Istanbul. Those rallies soon became broader, taking issue with Erdogan's often oppressive policies. Now, it seems, the mining tragedy could spark a resurgence of such protests:
Meanwhile, relatives of those still trapped inside the mine are waiting anxiously for news, per Agence-France Presse:
Outside the hospital in the Turkish town of Soma, relatives waited through the night behind a double police cordon as the death toll of a blast at the nearby coal pit soared above 200 and bereaved the entire town... "I'm waiting," said Zulfer Yildirim... "Gunduz left for work this morning as he always does. We heard at about 5:00 pm and now it's 3:00 am, still no news," she said.
The country's most fatal mining accident happened in 1992, when an explosion killed 263 workers.
Update 4:11 p.m. : According to the Associated Press, the death toll from the accident is now at 274, making this the deadliest mining accident in Turkish history:
BREAKING: Turkey: Death toll in mining accident reaches 274, making it country's worst mining disaster.— The Associated Press (@AP) May 14, 2014
As expected, protests escalated throughout the country today. The AP reported on the scene in Soma:
In downtown Soma, protesters mostly in their teens and 20s faced off against riot police in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters. The protesters smashed the party's office windows with rocks and some in the crowd shouted that Erdogan was a "murderer!" and a "thief!" "Our prime minister is a dictator," said protester Melih Atik, 16. "Neither the government nor the company took precautions in the mine and everyone knows that's why this happened."
And in Istanbul:
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of mine owner Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S. Police used tear gas and water cannon to break up a group who tried to march to the city's iconic Taksim Square to denounce poor safety conditions.
The updated death toll still leaves a number of workers unaccounted for. The new information is likely to make planned protest even more forceful.