ZUOYUN, China – Rescuers searching for 57 coal miners trapped by an underground flood began pumping water from their mine early Tuesday but there was no word on whether any miners were believed to be alive five days after the disaster.
The pumping began after a lengthy delay that state media said was caused by technical problems and lack of power to run the giant pumps brought in by rescuers.
There were no ambulances or medical personnel on hand, suggesting that rescuers didn't expect to find any survivors from the flood Thursday, which appeared to be China's biggest mine disaster this year.
The disaster in the country's dusty northern hill country highlighted the chaotic state of its coal mines, where some 6,000 miners are killed each year in fires, explosions and floods.
After the water pumps were turned on at about 9 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Tuesday, onlookers could see a growing stream pouring from hoses leading out of the mine and into a gully below.
The pumps are capable of moving 1,200 cubic meters (42,000 cubic feet) of water per hour, the official Xinhua News Agency said. But it said that with up to 200,000 cubic meters (7 million cubic feet) of water believed to be in the mine, draining it could take days.
The pessimism added to an emerging picture that the Xinjing mine was chaotically managed and indifferent to miners' safety.
China's top work safety official, Li Yizhong, has accused the mine's managers of sending miners into a coal seam beyond its approved area. Other officials have accused managers of trying to cover up the accident.
Mine manager Li Fuyuan and at least eight other officials have been detained for questioning, although the mine's owner fled, state media reported. A spokesman for the national work safety office, Huang Yi, said investigators were checking whether local officials have financial ties to the mine.
Such negligence is common in China, which relies on coal for two-thirds of the energy needed to fuel its robust economy. Mines routinely disregard safety rules to mine more coal and make more money.
Even by these standards, the situation at Xinjing appeared dismal.
Wages were as high as 5,000 yuan ($600) a month — a huge sum in a country with an annual average income of about $1,000 a year.
Yet living conditions were grim and primitive for the 1,500 miners and their family members, mostly migrants from poorer rural areas. Garbage blew in the breeze around their dormitories of wood and brick. There appeared to be no sewage system or running water.
A dozen police cruisers patrolled the area, possibly to guard against violence by angry miners or relatives of the missing.
State media gave prominent coverage to Xinjing's problems, underscoring Beijing's anger.
The mine's managers initially reported only five fatalities, later revising the number of missing upward to 44 and then 57, the reports said.
Relatives of the missing were driven across the nearby provincial boundary into Inner Mongolia to keep them quiet, reports said.
Managers didn't keep track of how many miners were in the pit during shifts and dismissed warnings from miners about water leaks at least three days before the accident, state media reported.
Miners who wouldn't give their names said accidents were frequent and complained that managers pressured them to dig faster or be fired.
The trapped miners were reportedly mining a seam outside the mine's approved operating range when they bored through to an abandoned shaft filled with water that streamed in under high pressure, Xinhua reported.