Pumps began working Sunday to drain a flooded coal mine where 172 miners have been trapped underground for two days in shafts filled with water estimated at more than 60 feet deep. Nine more miners were trapped in a second flooded shaft in the area.
Access to the main flooded mine was blocked, and there was no indication whether the miners were still alive or how long it would take to pump out the water. About 60 angry relatives crowded the gates of a company compound, complaining no information had been released — not even a list of the names of the trapped miners.
"No one has said anything about what is happening," said Li Chuanmei, whose 42-year-old brother was missing.
"They have not said if there are any survivors. They are treating these people like they are sacrificial goods. You would think an official would come out to tell us what is going on, whether there are any signs of life, whether they are dead or live," she said.
The miners have been trapped since Friday afternoon when a dike on the Wen river burst, sending water rushing into the Huayuan Mining Co. mine, stranding 172 miners. Nine more miners were trapped in a nearby mine shaft. Both are about 370 miles southeast of Beijing.
Zhang Dekuan, the Shandong provincial spokesman, said as of Saturday, officials estimated that the water in the mine was about 65 feet deep.
Despite the length of time the miners have been trapped, Zhang said "there is some hope and we will exert 100 percent, a 1,000 percent of effort to carry out the search and rescue."
In addition to two pumps already in operation, another four were being set up, he said.
Zhang refused to answer questions from reporters at the scene, specifically when asked if other mines in the area had stopped work Friday because of flooding dangers.
It is common for China's Communist rulers to limit media coverage of accidents. It took 23 minutes before a brief item on the mine flooding appeared on the main evening television news.
Zhang appealed to reporters to be sensitive when questioning family members of the miners, but he was overshadowed two minutes later by a second official who said not to interview them to preserve "social stability."
"Please don't bother them, it is not permitted to interview them, let them peacefully wait for news of their loved ones," said Gao Yuqing, the vice head of the provincial propaganda department.
The miners make about $106 a month, slightly less than the average urban salary in China but 2 1/2 times the average rural one.
According to a government Web site, the mine was previously called the Xinwen Mining Group Zhangzhuang Coal Mine, but underwent a reorganization in March 2004 when it went bankrupt.
The State Administration of Work Safety Web site said it had become a shareholding enterprise, but did not give any other details.
An accountant who worked for the Xinwen company but was fired in 2003 said there was a lot of resentment toward the company even before the accident because 30 percent of the work force was sacked that year before it was reorganized.
The accountant, who refused to give his name, also said output had fallen from about 1 million tons a year in the late 1980s to between 600,000 and 700,000 now.
The company now employs about 6,000 people, he said.
China's coal mines are the world's deadliest, with thousands of fatalities a year in fires, floods and other disasters. Many are blamed on managers who disregard safety rules.
The government has promised for years to improve mine safety, but China depends on coal for most of its electric power, and the country's economic boom has created voracious demand.