Chinese Mine Death Toll Rises to 161

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The death toll in a coal mine explosion in northeast China rose to 161 late Wednesday after emergency workers pulled more bodies from underground, state media reported.

At least 10 miners were missing, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The blast, which occurred Sunday at the Dongfeng Coal Mine, already ranks among China's deadliest. The rising death toll highlighted the dreadful state of the nation's mining industry.

There were differing accounts of how many miners were working when the blast occurred. Initial reports said 221 were underground — a number based on counting how many miners' lamps were handed out.

But the official attendance roll said 254 workers were on duty, state media said.

The number of miners missing ranged from 10 to 33, based on different sets of records.

"Rescue headquarters refused to comment on the disparity," the official China Daily newspaper said.

Some of the rescued workers were trapped for as long as 17 hours in the smoke-filled pit, breathing through wet towels and trying not to pass out, according to one account.

Mine accidents claim more than 5,000 lives each year in China — an average of more than a dozen deaths a day — more than anywhere else in the world. The government has unveiled one safety campaign after another as it repeatedly vows to stem the carnage.

But the rate of large-scale accidents is increasing, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.

"Chinese coal miners are paying with their blood to support China's 8 percent annual economic growth," the group said. "This is really too cruel and too heavy a price to pay."

In Qitaihe, there was a grim resignation.

"There's nothing we can do about it," said Zhang Yaowu, a former miner whose son was killed in Sunday's blast. "We need to work, and the work is dangerous. We need to get on with life."

There was no official word yet on what caused the blast.

Many of China's mine disasters are blamed on managers who ignore safety rules or fail to install required ventilation or fire control equipment, often in collusion with local officials.

Coal mining dominates this town in China's Heilongjiang province, part of the region once known as Manchuria. Slag heaps from dozens of coal pits dot the countryside.

Seeking to reduce mining deaths, the Chinese government has announced the creation of a national network of safety inspectors, stricter fire standards and shorter working hours for miners to prevent fatigue.

Authorities say they have shut down more than 12,000 coal mines this year for inspections. Thousands have been ordered to improve their facilities, and many others are not expected to reopen.

But the death toll in China's mines continues to mount.

"As coal mine accidents happen again and again, and more workers lose their lives in the pits," said China Labor Bulletin, "we have to ask how effective are these emergency meetings, 'courageous and extraordinary' measures, and 'strong determination' in reducing the soaring number of coal mine accidents."