Rescuers pumped water from a flooded mine in northern China where time is running out for 153 trapped workers as efforts stretched into a second day with no communication from those stuck deep underground.
Some 1,000 rescue workers were rotating on shifts to try to drain enough water to reach the trapped miners, but the rescue effort could take days. It was unclear if anyone was still alive in the shafts, some which extended a half-mile (one kilometer) into the earth.
The accident could be one of the worst mining disasters in recent years if rescue efforts fail and would set back marked improvements in mining safety.
“Their situation until now is still unknown so that is making everyone very worried,” said Liu Dezheng, a chief engineer with the work safety bureau in northern China’s Shanxi province, where the mine is located.
The flood at the state-owned Wangjialing coal mine may have started Sunday afternoon when workers dug into a network of old, water-filled shafts. Such derelict tunnels are posing new risks to miners across China even as the country improves safety in its notoriously hazardous mines, where accidents kill thousands each year.
China’s State Administration of Work Safety said 261 workers were inside the mine when it flooded, and 108 escaped or were rescued.
“We can’t get in touch with the people down there,” said miner Li Jianhong, 33, who was helping move pipes to suck water from the shaft. “If they haven’t drowned yet, they might have suffocated from a lack of oxygen.”
He was just about to head into the mine for his shift on Sunday when he heard that “something happened” underground. As he and his colleagues gathered for a meeting, they received a call from some of the trapped miners.
“We just received one phone call from them and after that there was no more contact. Those poor people,” he said.
Liu warned any rescue was still days away and said the 1,000 rescuers were rotating on four-hour shifts to make sure they got enough rest in the days ahead.
“This is not something that can be achieved in one or two days,” Liu said. “(Rescuers) must be prepared to work at least seven days and seven nights.”
State television said the workers were trapped in nine different places in the mine, which was flooded with up to 5 million cubic feet (140,000 cubic meters) of water.
Authorities were not only worried about the flood. Gases from the abandoned shafts may have flowed into the mine, bringing new dangers such as explosions or poisoning.
At the mine, located at the end of a long winding mountain road, rescuers worked in drizzling rain Monday to strap metal pipes and other parts of a pump onto a metal trolley. They pushed it along rail tracks into the entrance, where it was lowered into the shaft.
About 30 people stood quietly behind the police cordon watching.
Fan Leisheng, one of the miners who escaped, described the sudden rush of water that tore through the mine.
“It looked like a tidal wave, and I was so scared,” Fan told China Central Television. “I immediately ran away and looked back to see some others hanging behind. I shouted at them to get out. It was unbelievable because I got out from 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) underground.”
Officials have yet to declare the cause of the accident, but experts said it was likely that workers broke into the old shafts or pits of derelict mines that had filled with water.
“It could be that they broke into old workings, works that were not properly mapped out,” said David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government. “That’s a common problem with flooding, and Shanxi is an area where they have very extensive mining, a lot of old mines.”
Though China’s mining industry is still the world’s deadliest, it has dramatically improved its safety record over the last seven years, said Feickert, who is based in Wanganui, New Zealand and Beijing.
Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners last year, fewer than half the 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record, according to the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety. That means on average more than seven miners die every day, down from 19.1 in 2002.
The decline in deaths comes amid a ramping up in the mining of coal, which fuels about 70 percent of China’s voracious energy needs.
Much of the safety improvement has come from shutting down smaller, labor-intensive operators or forcing them into mergers with better-funded state companies.
Wangjialing, located about 400 miles (650 kilometers) southwest of Beijing, was under construction and had been scheduled to start production later this year, the China Daily newspaper reported.
Major mine accidents in China in recent years include a coal mine flood in eastern Shandong province in August 2007 that left 172 miners dead and a mine blast in northeastern Liaoning province in February 2005 that killed 214 miners.