XINTAI, China – Families of 181 miners trapped in flooded coal mines in eastern China and presumed dead lashed out at one of the companies Tuesday, complaining it had ignored safety warnings to halt work.
Rescue workers were pumping water in a bid to reach 172 miners missing for four days in the Huayuan mine and nine others in a smaller mine run by another company "despite dim hopes for anyone to survive," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The miners have been trapped since Friday afternoon when a dike collapsed, several hours after other mines in the area had pulled their workers to the surface because of flooding fears.
"The news reports say it is a natural disaster because of the rain, but the accident is because of the mine management. Every year there is flooding," said Ma Xiumei, who came with her sister to the mine headquarters in Xintai, Shandong province, for information about their missing brother.
"If these miners are safely brought home we won't say a thing, but if it is the worst then they (the company) need to think about my younger brother's laid-off wife, his children, his aging mother," said Ma Xiuhua.
At least two other mines in the area have said that worries about unusually heavy rains had prompted them to shut down Friday morning, raising questions about why the Huayuan Mining Co. continued to operate.
The state-run China Daily also reported Tuesday that relatives were complaining about "human error." It quoted one worker as saying the mine had flooded every year since 2002.
"Huayuan also reportedly received six phone calls from the Xintai Administration for Work Safety on Friday, before the accident, but took no action," the newspaper reported. It said the administration urged local mines to stop production and evacuate mines during torrential rainstorms.
It also quoted Huayuan's deputy general manager, Zhang Canjun, as rejecting the allegation, saying it was "absolutely impossible," without elaborating.
Calls to the company and to the safety administration were not answered Tuesday.
The company and local government appeared to be isolating families and pressuring them to keep their anger in check after one family attacked a Huayuan office with sticks on Monday.
Some neighborhoods with a lot of mining families have been sealed off, with plain-clothed guards keeping outsiders away. Some families have also been taken away and put up in hotels in the main center of Xintai, a 15-minute drive from the mining company offices.
One person who managed to sneak away from a hotel said the families had been told not to talk to each other.
While the Ma sisters were speaking to a reporter, a woman with short-cropped hair and wearing white pants and a white shirt with a black leopard-spot pattern pulled Ma Xiumei aside.
"Don't make a big thing about this, you have to think about your brother's job," the woman said.
Ma Xiumei said the woman worked for the mining company.
Security officials have also been trailing reporters in Xintai, nearly 370 miles southeast of Beijing.
Large-scale accidents like the mine flood present a test for the communist leadership under President Hu Jintao to prove it can deliver on pledges to improve farmers' and workers' lives.
The coal industry is a particular challenge. Coal feeds most of China's energy needs, and accidents kill an average of 13 miners a day.
Tempers among the miners' families boiled over Monday. Several relatives of a missing miner used wooden sticks to smash a reception window and display cases at a company office. They then rushed into Huayuan's nearby compound, followed by other relatives.