China mine explosion death toll reaches 92

HEGANG, China Sun Nov 22, 2009 2:38pm GMT

1 of 5. Rescuers prepare to enter the Xinxing coal mine to search for survivors following a gas explosion at the mine in Hegang, Heilongjiang Province November 22, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Aly Song

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HEGANG, China (Reuters) - The death toll from China's latest coal mine disaster reached 92 on Sunday, state television said, and hopes dimmed that more survivors would emerge after a gas blast at a colliery in the nation's far northeast.

Chinese television news said 528 workers were in the mine at Hegang in Heilongjiang province when the blast erupted in the early hours of Saturday, and 420 had been rescued by Sunday.

Some 16 miners remained trapped or unaccounted for, the evening news broadcast said.

Reporters in Hegang were taken by officials to see 20 or so rescue workers descending into a tunnel still belching smoke, preparing to scour tunnels for survivors or bodies.

Zhang Fucheng, an official in charge of rescue efforts, told Chinese television that efforts had been held up by gas and collapsed tunnels. Temperatures throughout the day were near freezing.

The blast was the latest big accident to hit the world's deadliest major coal mining industry. The explosion was so violent that nearby buildings partly collapsed.

Some of the survivors were badly injured.

"When I saw my husband, this mess of blood and flesh, I didn't recognise him at first," said Huang Guizhen, the wife of injured miner Qu Zhongliang, a Heilongjiang province news website (www.northeast.com.cn) reported.

"Then the doctor told me it was my husband and I burst into tears."

Compared to other manual jobs, Chinese coal miners can earn relatively high wages, tempting workers and farmers into rickety and poorly ventilated shafts.

Safety staff knew gas in the mine had reached dangerous levels and were rushing to evacuate the miners when the blast erupted 500 metres (1,500 feet) below ground, the website report also said, citing workers at the mine.

Central government prosecutors went to Hegang to oversee investigations into any possible crimes or official misconduct behind the blast, the China News Service reported.

Zhang Jinguang, a mine company spokesman, told Reuters that "as far as I know, there were no signs (of the accident beforehand)."

Police in Hegang kept a close eye on locals near the mine, and people organised by the government sought to prevent reporters speaking to residents.

"There's no hope," said one resident who said two friends were victims of the blast.

"One in hospital hasn't woken up yet, and the other, Wang Gang, still hasn't come out (out of the mine)," said the resident, who gave only her surname, Yu.

The Xinxing mine in Hegang lies near China's border with Russia and produced over a million tonnes of coal in the first 10 months of this year, local reports said. It is owned by the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, making it larger than most operations where colliery accidents occur.

In the first half of this year, 1,175 people died in officially recorded coal mine accidents across China, a fall of 18.4 percent compared to the same time last year, according to the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety.

An explosion in a mine in central Henan province in September left 79 workers dead or missing and likely dead. In 2005, an coal mine explosion in northeast Liaoning province killed 214.

Nor have Hegang's coal mines had a spotless record.

Earlier state media reports showed that in three accidents -- one in 2002 and two last year -- a total of 88 miners died.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by David Fox and Michael Roddy)

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