Soma, Turkey – At the entrance of Turkey’s Soma mine on Thursday, Ayten Kendircioglu rang the cellphone of her missing 27-year-old son Tarhan, hoping for a response. “I pray that he is unconscious in the hospital,” she said, her eyes suddenly welling with tears. “I just pray he is not trapped and buried in that hell.”
Since an explosion ripped through this sprawling coal mine city in southwestern Turkey two days ago, Kendircioglu and thousands of miners’ relatives have kept a silent vigil at Soma, standing atop rusting machinery and pushing past police barricades, searching for their missing loved ones.
But as the tragic scale of the mine disaster grew to 282 dead on Thursday, hope for the missing 200 workers is increasingly giving way to feelings of confusion and anger.
Residents of this hardscrabble Anatolian town say they’re unsure about the crisis management of Turkey’s ruling government. “I want to see our prime minister driven mad by pain like us, and to seek justice,” said Murat Bagrac, a 43-year-old Soma resident who retired from the mine 10 years ago. “I want him to be here, and stay until we get our answers.”
Turkish Prime Minsiter Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to the windswept mining site on Wednesday afternoon, cancelling a trip abroad and declaring three days of national mourning. “We are experiencing this great pain together as a country of 77 million,” said Erdogan, who labelled the accident a “commonplace” event in the country’s already long history of mining accidents.
“Let’s not say that these things never happen.These accidents are a commonplace thing,” Erdogan told families gathered at the entrance of the mine.
But his words seemed to provoke anger among many Soma residents. As Erdogan visited the centre of the town later that day, residents booed the prime minister, forcing Erdogan and his bodyguards into a nearby supermarket.
“Politicians lie, but the number of dead doesn’t,” said Edib Caliskan, who was part of a chanting crowd of protesters. Caliskan and others marched towards the office of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), breaking windows and shouting the names of slain miners.
As the death toll continued to rise on Wednesday, the accident also stoked wider anger against the ruling AKP, which has been embattled by a year-long street protest movement and, since late last year, a historic corruption scandal.
Demonstrators in Turkey’s major cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir faced off against riot police and tear gas on Wednesday night, in the largest street demonstrations Turkey has seen in months.
Erodgan urged calm over the incident, warning that the accident would be used by “opportunists and extremists groups”.
But in Soma, which gave a convincing 43 percent of its vote to Erdogan’s party in the local elections in March, the protest came as a surprise. “This is an event that has touched the soul of rural Anatolia, which is Erdogan’s traditional stronghold,” said Cegniz Aktar, a scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center. After securing a historic election win in March, “this could even damage his strengthened position”, Aktar said.
Anti-government anger is hardly a surprise given the state of the country’s mines, said Orhan Kural, a professor of mining sciences at Istanbul Technical University. “The scale of problems in the country’s mines is significant, even if it’s getting better,” said Kural. He cited a 2010 study on Turkish mining safety, where the number of deaths per million tonne of coal production was higher than that of China or the US, the world’s top coal producers.
The study, commissioned by the Economy Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), found that the death rate of Turkish miners was seven times higher than their counterparts in China. “Things are getting better step by step, but even this mine was seen to be a model for others – safety standards need improvement,” said Kural. Over 3,000 Turkish miners have died in accidents over the past seven decades, the TEPAV report said.
On Wednesday, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz acknowledged that troubling record and suggested that the Soma death toll was likely to rise dramatically. “Our hopes are diminishing, the problem is simply graver than we thought,” said Yildiz.
Rescue worker Baris Yontem confirmed the grim assessment after emerging from a six hour shift in the mine on Wednesday. “We have to pump oxygen into the mine to keep the carbon dioxide from seeping through the rubble. There’s no oxygen where the trapped miners are.”
Yontem said he searched for hours in the dark mine on Tuesday night, pulling out two men alive from the rubble. But since early Wednesday morning, rescue workers have found only bodies. “I pray that things could be different, but you won’t see a hopeful face among us now,” he said.
The event is all the more tragic because it could have been prevented, said parliamentary deputy Ozgur Ozel of the country’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, “There are accidents happening there every single month,” Ozel said.
“We cannot call an accident what was deliberate negligence.” Last year, Ozel requested the energy minister to perform a special overhaul of safety practises in the mine after several accidents there.
But his request was turned down in April. “Inspections have clearly flagged problems here, but our workers say nothing was being addressed. Today, many of the workers who warned us for years are dead,” he said.
A spokesperson for Turkey’s energy ministry told Al Jazeera that the mine was inspected in late March, and passed state safety requirements.
Back at the mining site, Kendircioglu was still hoping to get a call from her son. “Maybe he’s unconscious in the hospital and can’t respond. We just want our son to come home.”