Toxic gas hinders search for 32 miners

In China, hope of rescue fading

A rescue worker walked past a wall with signs thanking the Communist Party of China and celebrating Monday’s dramatic rescue of 115 miners at the Wangjialing coal mine. A rescue worker walked past a wall with signs thanking the Communist Party of China and celebrating Monday’s dramatic rescue of 115 miners at the Wangjialing coal mine. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
By Gillian Wong
Associated Press / April 7, 2010

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XIANGNING, China — A dangerous gas buildup and narrow shafts stalled rescue efforts yesterday for the remaining 32 miners trapped in a Chinese coal mine, as the euphoria faded from the previous day’s stunning rescue of 115 workers after more than a week underground.

There were no signs of life in the mine, and the recovery of six bodies also dimmed hopes.

Rescue work stretched into its 10th day but met a new challenge as toxic, highly combustible gas seeped into the mine, reaching levels a rescue spokesman said were “impermissible.’’ Efforts to pump out enough water for rescuers to enter were hindered by tunnels too narrow for large pumps to be installed.

The grim outlook follows Monday’s dramatic rescues at the Wangjialing mine in the northern province of Shanxi. The 115 miners survived for eight days underground by eating sawdust, tree bark, paper, and even coal. Some strapped themselves to the walls of the shafts with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.

By yesterday, there had been no new signs of life from those still trapped, said Liu Dezheng, rescue headquarters spokesman. Asked whether he was hopeful for their survival, Liu said, “I can only say that we are exerting all efforts.’’

Rescuers were taking precautions to prevent explosions and to improve ventilation in the mine. Liu did not refer to a specific gas, but coal seams release large amounts of methane, which is highly combustible, and other dangerous gases.

The trapped workers were in three different spots in the mining shafts that were inaccessible because of the flooding, China Central Television reported. Pumping was difficult because some parts of the underground passages are too narrow for large pumps, Liu said.

The survivors have been hospitalized in the nearby city of Hejin under tight security, with wards guarded by paramilitary police. Sixty survivors were taken by a chartered train to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, in the morning.

More details emerged of the miners’ survival. State television interviewed a miner who sent up one of the first signs of life last week by tying an iron wire to a drill rod.

“I wanted to send a signal to people above ground,’’ Gong Changzhong told CCTV from his hospital bed. “When we heard the sound of drilling coming from above, we were really excited. I said, ‘They must be trying to save us.’ So I took the wire and tied it to a box, maybe it fell off. It had a message telling them to send a phone down so we could talk to them.’’

The official Xinhua News Agency cited an unnamed worker who said he and more than 20 others huddled on a wooden platform they had built and tried to row out on makeshift rafts. Many chewed on bits of paper they found floating in the water or even on pieces of coal to stave off hunger.

A total of 153 miners had been trapped since March 28, when workers digging tunnels broke into a water-filled, abandoned shaft. A preliminary investigation last week found the mine’s managers ignored water leaks before the accident.

The rescue was rare good news for China’s mining industry, the deadliest in the world, where accidents killed 2,631 coal miners last year. That’s down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record.

“For the past eight days, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was so worried,’’ said Tang Aiming, whose brothers Aijun and Aichun were pulled out Monday.

“We didn’t believe they were all right at first until we heard Aijun’s voice on the phone,’’ Tang said. “The first thing he said was: ‘I am safe now. It’s all right.’ ’’

Many survivors were still too weak to talk at length, said Dr. Zhang Jianying at the Employees’ Hospital of the Shanxi Aluminum Factory. So far, relatives were not allowed to visit.

“The most important thing for them right now is to rest,’’ he said.