After the disaster, the mine's manager, chief safety officer and chief engineer were removed from their posts to facilitate investigations into the cause of Sunday's blast, Xinhua said.

Some 436 miners were on site on Sunday when a gas explosion ripped through the mine located in China's main coal-producing Shanxi province.

Rescue headquarters confirmed that the death toll stood at 74, but did not reveal how many miners were trapped, or whether there were any still underground.

Of the more than 300 survivors, 114 have been hospitalised, several of them in critical condition.

Investigations

An officer named Zhang at the State Administration of Work Safety said the cause of the explosion was being investigated.

A statement posted on the provincial government's website said final checks were being conducted on the mine.

"The next step is to double-check at the bottom of the well ... to treat the injured and properly save all the data files in preparation for the investigation," the statement added.

The toll was the highest from a China coal mine accident since December 2007, when 105 miners were killed in a gas explosion in an unventilated tunnel in Linfen city, also in Shanxi province.

Xinhua said the Tunlan coal mine had among the best facilities of any mine in China and that no major accidents had occurred there in five years.

The mine is owned by Shanxi Coking Coal Group, China's largest producer of coking coal, which is used in the production of steel.

Toxic fumes

Citing doctors, Xinhua said most of the injured miners suffered carbon monoxide poisoning.

Survivors described how they tried to flee along tunnels to escape the choking carbon monoxide.

Thousands of illegal mines have been closed following a government crack down [EPA]
One hospitalised survivor, Xue Huancheng, told Xinhua that he was ordered to flee because the ventilation system had broken down.

Xue said he fainted near the exit after walking for 40 minutes despite using an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

Some of the miners had reportedly called their families on mobile phones from under ground.

Beijing has promised for years to improve mine safety, and more than 1,000 dangerous small mines were closed last year, but China's mining industry remains the world's deadliest.

Official figures show that almost 80 per cent of the nation's 16,000 mines are illegal.

About 3,200 people died in coal mine accidents last year, a 15 per cent decline from the previous year, according to the Associated Press.

Safety efforts

Geoffrey Crothall, a researcher with the China Labour Bulletin, a worker's rights group based in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera the Chinese government has made a lot of effort to improve the safety situation in its mines.

But the problem was at the small, unlicensed mines where most of the accidents and deaths go unreported, and where mine owners collude with local officials to cover-up the incidents, he said.

"There is will on the part of the central govt but it is an organisational problem in that the people tasked with ensuring mine safety at the local level are very often the same people who have a direct or indirect economic interest in the mine itself," Crothall said.