181 miners trapped in Chinese mine

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING -- Rescue teams, including about 2,000 soldiers, rushed to a flooded coal mine in eastern China yesterday, where 181 miners were trapped and feared dead after severe rains breached a levee and inundated the site.

State-run media, quoting executives of Huayuan Mining Co., reported that 756 miners were working in the main part of the facility when flooding started Friday afternoon, but that 584 were able to escape. In another flooded shaft nearby, an additional nine miners were trapped by the waters.

Crews installed pipes and five high-speed pumps in the mines in this town southeast of Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. There was no word on whether there were signs of life.

The official New China News Agency quoted the provincial mine administrator as saying the chances of finding any survivors were slim. The director of China's industrial safety agency, Li Yizhong, ordered emergency crews to "try every means to rescue the trapped miners," the agency reported.

Mining accidents are common in China, where the growing economy has produced a near-insatiable demand for coal.

The death toll from the accident in Xintai in eastern Shangdong province could be the highest from any mine accident in more than two years.

In February 2005, 214 miners died in an explosion in a coal mine in the northeastern city of Fuxin; that accident was China's deadliest in decades.

Although local authorities sounded pessimistic last night, just two weeks ago 69 coal miners were rescued from a flooded shaft in neighboring Henan province three days after a similar flash flood.

According to government figures, 4,746 people were killed in 2,845 separate mining accidents in 2006 - an average of nearly eight incidents every day.

Most deaths occur at illegal digs, and the number of accidents is believed to be higher than reported in government statistics. The Xintai mine operates legally.

Government officials in recent months have accused mine owners and managers of routinely covering up accidents and vowed to improve mine safety. The government ordered the closing of 10,000 small mines earlier this year; such small operations are more prone to accidents.

State-run news media said the flooding in Xintai occurred after torrential rains Friday caused the swelling Wen River to breach a levee near the mine, sending water down the shafts. Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army were sent in to shore up the levee, which authorities said had been rebuilt by midday yesterday. Still, rain persisted, hampering rescue efforts and risking further flooding.

Pumps were being sent from nearby provinces to assist the rescue efforts at the mine, which government officials said had a capacity of 750,000 tons of coal annually. Villagers near the mine were evacuated, and other mines in the area were ordered to halt production.

Meanwhile, the death toll in the collapse of a bridge in southern China jumped to 64 yesterday after rescuers found 17 bodies in the rubble, a state news agency said.

It was unclear how many victims might still be buried under the wreckage of Monday's collapse in the tourist town of Fenghuang, the Xinhua said, citing rescue officials.

On Friday, rescuers blasted away stone and concrete in order to search under the rubble of the bridge, which collapsed while under construction.

Many of those killed in one of China's worst building accidents in years were construction workers. Xinhua said it was unclear how many were working on the bridge, because they came from seven companies and some were day laborers.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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