A Turkish mining company has defended its safety record and senior Turkish officials have denied allegations of poor government oversight, four days after at least 284 people died and 18 remain missing in a coal mine explosion and fire.
Eighteen miners were still missing, the country’s energy minister said on Friday, dousing earlier fears that more than 100 victims remained in the mine owned by Soma Holding in the western town of Soma.
Alp Gurkan, the chairman of Soma Holding, said he had spent his own money improving standards at the mine.
“I am hurting inside,” he said at a news conference.
Gurkan said he hoped to continue operations at the mine after correcting any problems found by investigators.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said on Friday that anyone found to have been negligent about safety at the mine could expect punishment.
“If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector,” he said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party asked parliament to set up an inquiry into the disaster – an apparent attempt to signal that authorities will not flinch from getting at the truth.
Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party, also defended the government’s record.
“We have no inspection and supervision problem,” he said. “This mine was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009.”
His comments raised the question, however, of how the mine could have been so vigorously checked and still have an explosion that killed nearly 300 people.
Celik also urged people to move on from the disaster, comments that certainly could rankle in industrial Soma, where days of heartbreaking funerals have been held this week.
“Let’s learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes. The private sector and the public sector will draw lessons,” he said.
“This is not the time to look for a scapegoat.”
As the officials attempted to defend their actions, demonstrations erupted in the western town of Soma where Turkey’s worst mining disaster occurred, with police firing water cannon on thousands of protesters,
The accident has set off a raft of protests and public outrage at allegedly poor safety conditions at Turkish coal mines, widespread corruption and what some perceived as government indifference.
“It’s not an accident, it’s murder,” read one banner held by workers who marched through the streets of Istanbul on Thursday.
The chief prosecutor in the city of Akhisar near Soma said prosecutors had begun interviewing some of the injured miners and other witnesses.
The mining company said the exact cause of the accident was still not known but denied any wrongdoing.
Ramazan Dogru, the mine’s general manager, rejected initial reports that the fire was caused by an explosion at a power distribution unit.
“It was caused by an undetermined spark,” Dogru said. “We believe that the fire grew because there was an entry of clean air there.”
Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine’s most recent inspection was in March, when no safety violations were detected. But Turkey’s opposition party said Erdogan’s ruling party had voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into several smaller accidents at mines around Soma.
The energy minister’s comments suggested no one else was expected to come out alive from the mine, where most of the victims died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
“We believe that there are no more than 18 worker brothers inside the mine,” Yildiz told reporters. He said that number was based on reports from families and data provided by the company.
“We have 284 losses, 18 brothers inside and 77 million people hurting,” Yildiz said, the last figure a reference to Turkey’s entire population.