ANKARA, Turkey – An explosion and a fire Tuesday killed at least 151 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey and hundreds more remained trapped underground, government officials said as Turkey launched a massive rescue operation.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time of the accident and 363 of them had been rescued so far. He said 76 miners were injured, including one who was in serious condition. The mine is located some 155 miles from Istanbul.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.
Yildiz said most of the deaths were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning.
"Time is working against us," Yildiz said earlier. He said some 400 rescuers were involved in the operation.
Yildiz said some of the workers were 460 yards deep inside the mine.
Television footage showed people cheering and applauding as some trapped workers emerged out of the mine, helped by rescuers, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot. One wiped away tears on his jacket, another smiled, waved and flashed a "thumbs up" sign at onlookers.
Authorities had earlier said that the blast left between 200 to 300 miners underground and were preparing for the possibility that the death toll could jump dramatically, making arrangements to set up a cold storage facility to hold the corpses of miners recovered from the site.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania scheduled for Wednesday and planned to visit Soma instead.
The rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometers (miles) long, said Cengiz Ergun, the leader of Manisa province, where the town is located.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the mine and the hospital in Soma seeking news of their loved ones. NTV television said people broke into applause as rescued workers arrived in ambulances. Interviewed by Dogan news agency, some complained about the lack of information from state and company officials about the situation of the trapped workers.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away.
SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., which owns the mine, confirmed that a number of its workers were killed but would not give a specific figure. It said the accident occurred despite the "highest safety measures and constant controls" and added that an investigation was being launched.
"Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones," the company said in a statement.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.
Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.