XINTAI, China – Rescuers raced Saturday to pump water out of two coal mines flooded by a rain-swollen river in eastern China, where 181 miners were missing and feared dead.
Water levels were rising, work areas were submerged and the miners "had only slim chances of survival," the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing Wang Ziqi, director of Shandong province's coal mine safety agency.
Crews installed pipes and five high-speed pumps in the mines in this town southeast of Beijing, Xinhua reported. There was no word on whether there were signs of life.
The Huayuan Mining Co. mine flooded Friday afternoon when the Wen River burst a dike, sending water pouring into a shaft and trapping 172 miners, according to state media reports.
Nine more miners were trapped when water poured into the nearby Minggong Coal Mine on Friday evening, according to Xinhua. It was not clear whether the second flood was due to the same dike break.
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.
An employee who answered the phone at the national mine safety agency said he had no additional information and refused to give his name. Calls to the Shandong mine agency were not answered.
Storms that swept through the region on Friday and Saturday dumped more than 9 inches of rain, Xinhua said. Some 2,000 soldiers, police and miners were working Saturday to close the 175-foot gap in the Wen dike, the agency reported. The water was 6 1/2 feet deep at the breech, the report said.
State television showed work crews dumping sacks of earth and derelict trucks and buses into the gap.
Late Saturday, emergency vehicles from China's paramilitary People's Armed Police surrounded the Huayuan mine, in a region where the terrain is pockmarked with the mouths of scores of mines.
Police blocked surrounding roads and ordered reporters for local Chinese media to leave the area in an effort to control the release of information.
Xinhua cited a miner who said the Huayuan mine had prepared nine pumps in case of flooding.
The miner, Xu Qinyu, was quoted as saying the mine control center received a warning at 2:30 p.m. on Friday that the Wen dike was breaking and miners immediately began evacuating.
The report did not say whether all the miners were alerted to the break or how far from the surface the missing miners were believed to be.
China's coal mines are the world's deadliest, with thousands of deaths a year in fires, floods and other disasters. Many are blamed on managers who disregard safety rules, fail to install required fire-control equipment or push miners to dig far more coal than the mine's license allows.
The government has promised for years to improve mine safety.
Authorities offer rewards to whistle-blowers who expose problems, prosecute officials who collude with unscrupulous mine bosses, and have ordered thousands of small pits closed.
But China depends on coal for most of its electric power, and the country's economic boom has created voracious demand. Production has more than doubled since 2000.
China's deadliest reported coal mine disaster since the 1949 communist revolution was an explosion that killed 214 miners on Feb. 14, 2005, in the Sunjiawan mine in Liaoning province.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the collapse of a bridge in southern China jumped to 64 on Saturday 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 News Agency 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.