Family Members Demand Answers After Deadly Chinese Mine Explosion

Grieving miners' families demanded answers Monday from mining officials about the underground gas explosion that left at least 104 men dead in northeastern China.

The massive blast Saturday in Hegang city in frigid Heilongjiang province erupted at night when some 500 miners were working below ground. Most escaped, but 104 were confirmed dead and an additional four were missing and feared dead, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday. The search for the missing men continued, it said.

The explosion at the Xinxing coal mine, which belongs to the state-owned Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, was the deadliest in China's mining industry in two years, and has highlighted how heavy demand for power-generating coal comes at a high human cost.

At the gates of the mining company's offices, family members and friends confronted mining officials with questions until some of them were escorted into an office by police, security guards and other officials.

"Why don't you tell us anything?" one shouted. "Not even a phone call!"

Inside the room, Liu Shujiu, whose 38-year-old husband Zhang Shulai was among the victims, broke down in tears as she sat in a chair.

"Why haven't they told us anything?" she wailed. "We had to hear from others at the mine."

A mine official, who — like many Chinese officials — refused to give his name for fear of government reprisals, held up a list of miners' names and tried to calm the crowd: "There are certainly deaths. You don't take it well, we know. But there's a process. I feel as bad as you," he said, pausing before admitting that the delay in informing family members was a mistake.

"In this, we were wrong," he said.

Liu said mining officials had brought her rice but little information over the weekend. She said officials have given families no information about the details and circumstances of the blast.

"We thought the state mines were safe. Why did he die?" she said. The couple have a 9-year-old daughter, whom she had not yet told. "How do I tell her that her father is not coming home?"

Another woman, whose husband Hou Yibin was among the dead, remained seated and silent. She was later laid across some chairs with an intravenous drip in her arm as a nurse hovered nearby.

Initial investigations showed the mine's management failed to evacuate workers promptly after an extraordinarily high gas density was detected in the pit, Luo Lin, the head of China's State Administration of Work Safety, was quoted as telling Xinhua on Monday.

"The accident has again revealed many problems in colliery management — it is a lesson we must all learn," Luo said, adding a thorough probe would determine the exact cause of the explosion, which he said started with a gas leak in one of the shafts and was worsened by poor ventilation.

In the wake of the explosion, the Xinxing mine's director, deputy director and chief engineer were fired, state media has said.

The blast at the nearly 100-year-old mine in Heilongjiang province, near the Russian border, shows the difficulties the central government faces in trying to improve safety. In recent years, it has shuttered or absorbed hundreds of smaller, private mines into state-owned operations, which are considered generally safer.

The largest major mining accident in recent years occurred in September 2007, with 181 miners killed when shafts at two neighboring mines flooded in eastern Shandong province.

In another reminder of mining's dangers, the death toll from a Sunday explosion at a mine in central Hunan Province rose to 11, with another three missing, Xinhua reported Monday. Rescue efforts are continuing at the Guojiawan mine in Huaihua city.

China has the deadliest mining industry in the world, but coal is vital for the country's economy, which is targeted to grow by 8 percent this year.