SAVASTEPE, Turkey – Miner Erdal Bicak believes he knows why so many of his colleagues died in Turkey’s worst mining disaster: company negligence.
And he knows one other thing — he’s never going back down any mine again.
Bicak, 24, had just ended his shift Tuesday and was making his way to the surface when managers ordered him back underground because of a problem in the Soma coal mine in western Turkey.
READ MORE: Turkish mining company denies negligence
“The company is guilty,” Bicak told The Associated Press, adding that managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. “The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn’t tell us in time.”
The miner also said government safety inspectors never visited the lower reaches of the Soma mine and have no idea of how bad conditions get as workers trudge deeper underground.
Bicak, whose leg was badly injured and in a cast, recounted his miraculous escape late Friday while at a candle-lit vigil for Soma victims in the town square of nearby Savastepe.
Public anger has surged in the wake of the Soma coal mine inferno that killed at least 299 miners. Police used tear gas and water cannon Friday to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Soma who were demanding that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government resign. In Istanbul, police broke up a crowd who lit candles to honour the Soma victims.
Bicak said he ended up about a kilometre (.6 miles) underground with 150 people Tuesday afternoon when he heard an explosion. He said they were given old oxygen masks that he thought hadn’t been checked in many years.
Bicak and a close friend tried to make it to an exit, but there was a lot of smoke. The path was very narrow and steep, with ceilings so low that miners can’t stand up, making it difficult to leave quickly. He and his friend took turns slapping each other to stay conscious.
“I told my friend ‘I can’t go on. Leave me here. I’m going to die,'” Bicak said. But his friend said to him, “‘No, we’re getting out of here.'”
Bicak eventually made it out of the mine with his friend — by then lapsing in and out of consciousness. He said he lost many friends and out of the 150 miners he was working with, only 15 made it out alive.
Thick smoke from the underground fire killed many miners who had no gas masks, according to Akin Celik, the Soma mine’s operations manager.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Saturday that crews had found one more body overnight, raising the death toll to 299, but a new fire was hampering efforts to reach the two or three workers still missing. He said 485 miners escaped or were rescued.
The Milliyet newspaper said Saturday it saw a preliminary report by a mine safety expert who went into the Soma mine that suggested smouldering coal caused the mine’s roof to collapse. The report said the tunnel’s support beams were made of wood, not metal, and there were not enough carbon monoxide sensors.
Labour Minister Faruk Celik said investigations have been launched by both prosecutors and the company but “there is no report that has emerged yet.”
Government and mining officials insisted Friday, however, that the disaster was not due to negligence.
“There’s no negligence with respect to this incident,” said Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party. He said the mine in Soma “was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009.”
“Let’s learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes,” he said. “(But) this is not the time to look for a scapegoat.”
Celik, the mining official, echoed those words.
“There’s no negligence with respect to this incident. We all worked with all our heart and soul. I have not seen anything like this in 20 years,” he told reporters.
Bicak said the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months ago. He said mine managers know that government inspectors only visit the top 100 metres (yards) of the mine, so they just clean up that part and the inspectors never see the narrow, steep, cramped sections below.
Mine owners are tipped off up to a week before an inspection anyway, said Ozgur Ozel, an opposition lawmaker from the Soma region who has criticized the government for not adopting the International Labor Organization’s convention on mine safety.
Bicak, who is still trying to come to grips with the deaths of so many colleagues, says he knows now that his mining career is over.
“I’m not going to be a miner anymore. God gave me a chance and now I’m done,” he said.
© The Canadian Press, 2014