Chinese mine flood relatives fear toll cover-up

Fri Apr 2, 2010 6:02am EDT

* Officials refuse to publish list of names of trapped

* Survivors say fewer than 108 escaped, more trapped

* Possible indications of life heard on Friday morning

XIANGNING, China, April 2 (Reuters) - Families and survivors of a flood feared to be one of China's worst mine accidents in recent years say officials are covering up the true number of people trapped underground and failing in rescue efforts.

The local government has not published the names of the 153 miners it says were unable to escape when water surged into the pit on Sunday afternoon, prompting Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang to demand a list of potential victims, local media reported.

"Is 153 the exact number?" Zhang, sent to direct rescue efforts shortly after the accident, was quoted asking mine officials in a conference call.

"I don't think the suspicion from the public is unreasonable," he added, according to the Beijing News.

At the mine itself relatives waiting for news of their fathers, sons and brothers, and survivors keen to help out with rescue efforts all told Reuters the official toll was too low.

"We sent 10 tramcars down to the pit before the flooding and each car usually carries 44 miners and a driver," a tramcar driver who was working on the day of the accident said.

"Only one car came back up the shaft, plus a few dozen miners who escaped on foot," he said, suggesting nearly 450 people could have been underground at the time of the flood.

Officials say 261 people were working in the unfinished Wangjialing mine, in northern Shanxi province, and 108 escaped. Even those who do not question the total number underground say there may be more than 153 still trapped.

"At least 200 people are trapped," said a mine worker surnamed Li, unwilling to give his full name because of official pressure not to speak to foreign media.

"I was working in the checkpoint at the entry of the pit, so I'm quite sure about how many people had gone underground."

A Shanxi government official said they had heard there were a lot of suspicions, but insisted the number was accurate.

"We have checked this many times, so it should be the exact number," said the official from the province's foreign affairs office, who gave only his surname, Cao, and said he did not know why names were not being released.

SURVIVAL HOPES?

Some miners were working on platforms above current water levels and may have survived, the official Xinhua agency said.

Sounds from the pit, which may have been someone pounding on the pipelines, were heard on Friday morning, CCTV news reported. One of the rescue workers told Reuters they had found a piece of wire tied onto a pipeline sent into the flooded zone.

But five days of rescue efforts have reduced water levels barely a metre, the Xinhua report added.

"The pipelines are too thin to pump water fast enough," the daughter of a trapped miner told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

"My father will not be killed by the flooding, but by these rescuers," she added.

China has ordered the consolidation or takeover of many private mines in order to improve oversight and safety.

It credits the shutdown of many of the most dangerous private mines with helping to reduce the death toll in the coal industry to about 2,600 last year from over 3,000 the year before.

But the deadliest accidents are not limited to private firms. The Wangjialing mine was a high-profile project belonging to a joint venture between China National Coal Group and Shanxi Coking Coal Group, two of China's larger state-owned firms.

Relatives and some Chinese media have blamed the firms for ignoring safety requirements in their push to start operations.

Miners found water in the pit as early as three days before the accident, but the managers just said: "How can you be afraid of a little bit of water?" the worker surnamed Li said.

"They did not treat migrant workers as human beings," he added. (Writing by Yu Le and Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Jerry Norton)