XINTAI, China – Rescue workers pumped water Monday from a flooded mine in eastern China but hopes were fading quickly for the safety of 181 miners trapped for three days.
Meanwhile, officials from nearby mining operations said heavy rains forced a halt to their work hours before the mine at the Huayuan Mining Co. in Shandong province was flooded.
That raised questions about why the Huayuan workers were underground when a dike on a nearby river burst in mid-afternoon Friday, sending water into the mine.
"We suspended production from 8 a.m. on Aug. 17 (Friday) because we noticed a warning given by an expert on the night of the 16th that the water level of the river had risen too fast," said a man, who gave only his surname Wang, at the administrative office of the state-owned Xintai Wenhe Coal Mine.
Wang said his company kept 300 workers off the morning shift on Friday.
"After the incident, we received a notice from the city administration for coal mine safety that production should be suspended at all mines in Xintai," he said.
Workers at the Xintai Hanzhuang Coal Mine were ordered back to the surface Friday morning, said a man at the company, surnamed Li.
"At that time it was raining very heavily. Later, we closed the mine completely on the order of the coal mine safety administration. We have no idea when production will resume," Li said.
Another mine, the Xintai Lianhuashan Coal Mine, stopped production after receiving the order from the government, said an official at the mine who gave only his surname Wang.
Phone calls to several other coal mines in the area were not answered.
At the Huayuan Mining Co. mine, distraught family members shouted for information and one woman fainted as they waited for word on the missing miners.
One group of 172 miners was trapped Friday afternoon when the dike on the Wen River burst under heavy rains, flooding the coal mine and a nearby shaft where nine other miners were trapped.
Rescuers had determined an approximate location of the miners as pumping continued and the water level dropped, said experts who were part of the rescue effort.
"We've determined the general location of the miners, the general area. There's still some hope," said Bu Changsheng, a water engineering expert.
Four industrial pumps were in place and two more were expected to be operational by Monday night. Officials were trying to deploy them deep into the shaft but had to drill holes in some places to get the pumps in.
Bu said it would take two days for the pumps to reach the bottom of the mine. "The water level has already started to fall," he said.
Rescue officials and state media have given no indication if the miners are still alive.
If the Huayuan miners are found dead, the accident would be among the worst of its kind in 58 years of communist rule, second only to an explosion that killed 214 miners in the northeast in 2005.
China's mines are woefully dangerous, with an average of 13 miners dying everyday. The toll has become a blot for the communist leadership, which has called for improved safety, especially since the country, with its torrid economy, depends on coal to meet two-thirds of its energy needs.