China families protest mine disaster; toll hits 104

HEGANG, China Mon Nov 23, 2009 10:39am EST

1 of 11. Relatives of miners who were killed in a gas explosion wait to meet officials at the entrance of Xinxing Coal Mine in Hegang, Heilongjiang province, November 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Aly Song

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HEGANG, China (Reuters) - Relatives of miners killed by a gas blast at a coal pit in northeast China scuffled with police and demanded answers from the owners on Monday as the toll hit 104 and hopes faded that any more survivors would be found.

The protest came a day after another 11 miners were killed in a blast at a pit in the southern province of Hunan, the official Xinhua agency said. China's stability-obsessed government is nervous about protests, and keen to control discontent.

China has the world's deadliest coal-mining industry with more than 3,000 people killed in mine floods, explosions, collapses and other accidents in 2008 alone.

Saturday's explosion at the mine in Hegang in the frigid province of Heilongjiang came as more than 500 miners were underground, though most were rescued.

Mine operators were at fault because they failed to evacuate workers fast enough after dangerously high gas levels were detected in the mine, said Luo Lin, head of the country's safety watchdog, the State Administration of Work Safety

(SAWS).

Nearly an hour before the explosion, a gas detector showed levels five times the trigger for an evacuation, Xinhua said. An official said the mine was too big for workers to escape in time.

Four miners were still unaccounted for on Sunday with almost no hope for survival, but even as smoke drifted out of the mine mouth near the site of the explosion, other miners were heading into undamaged parts of the pit to start the evening's shift.

A dozen women, relatives of the dead, had braved the freezing temperatures on Monday morning to take their complaints about a lack of information to the mine's entrance, where they argued and scuffled with police and mine security.

"None of the officials have died, all of the dead are the workers," one shouted. "Not one of those officials has even been down into that mine."

Some of the women were taken inside the mine compound, while others were put into a large white van. Men who declined to identify themselves tried to stop reporters speaking to the women, putting their hands in front of cameras.

SUFFERING FAMILIES

Anxious families were also milling around the hospital where 54 miners, six of them seriously injured, are being treated. Hospital staff were trying to calm tensions.

"When the patients see their families going through this suffering, they become very emotional, overemotional, and they can become restless," said Wang Jun, Director of the surgical department at Hegang mining hospital.

In 2007, after more than 180 miners died in a flooded coal mine in the northern province of Shandong, relatives stormed the offices of the company that operated the mine, smashing windows and accusing managers of not telling families what was happening.

Compared with other manual jobs, Chinese coal miners can earn relatively high wages, tempting workers and farmers into rickety and poorly ventilated shafts.

The Xinxing mine in Hegang lies near China's border with Russia and produced more than a million tonnes of coal in the first 10 months of this year, local reports said.

It is owned by the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, making it larger than most operations where accidents occur.

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison in BEIJING, Writing by Ben Blanchard)

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