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Updated: Wed, 14 May 2014 10:16:05 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Turkey coal-mine explosion death toll rises to 232



A woman reacts after she have seen the dead body of a relative miner outside the mine in Soma, western Turkey, early Wednesday, May 14, 2014. 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 200 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (© 155 miles)

A woman reacts after she have seen the dead body of a relative miner outside the mine in Soma, western Turkey, early Wednesday, May 14, 2014. 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 200 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, at the time of the accident and 363 of them had been rescued so far. (AP Photo/Depo Photos) The Associated Press

Women wailed uncontrollably, men knelt sobbing and others just stared in disbelief outside a coal mine in western Turkey as rescue workers removed a steady stream of bodies from an underground explosion and fire that killed at least 232 workers. The fate of more than 100 miners remained unclear in one of Turkey's worst mining disasters.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a foreign trip and gave an updated death toll figure during a visit to the coal mine in Soma, about 250 kilometres south of Istanbul. The energy minister said the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Erdogan discussed rescue operations with authorities and walked near the entrance of the mine with a huge entourage. He comforted two crying women, expressing sorrow and wishing them well. Earlier, Erdogan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half-staff.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time of the explosion and 363 of them had been rescued. Scores were injured, Yildiz told reporters in Soma, where he was overseeing operations by more than 400 rescuers.

"Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing," Yildiz said before Erdogan's visit.

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 than usual.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Protests outside company HQ

In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company which owns the mine, Soma Holding.

Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March of 2014, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.

The country's main opposition party said that Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at mines around Soma.

Rescue workers emerged at a slow pace from the mine with stretchers carrying bodies, which were covered in blankets. The corpses' faces were blackened by the coal.

Other rescue workers, mostly miners lucky enough to have been on a different shift or working in other mines, have also trickled out on their own. One man, who declined to be named, said he had led a 10-man team about a kilometre, or halfway, down the mine into the tunnels and had recovered three bodies.

But the men had to flee because of smoke from coal that had been lit by the explosion, he said. Another man walked down the stairs from the mine's entrance weeping, with a look of dejection. Behind him, two groups bearing heavy stretchers pushed through the crowd like caterpillars.

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.

An injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.

Fire caused by power distribution unit

Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.

Yildiz said earlier that some of the workers were 420 metres deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers couldn't use elevators to escape because the explosion had cut off power.

SOMA KomurIsletmeleri A.S., which owns the mine, said the accident occurred despite the "highest safety measures and constant controls" and added that an investigation was being launched.

"Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones," the company said in a statement.

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