ZUOYUN, China – Managers dismissed warnings about water leaks in a coal mine just days before a flood trapped 57 miners, state media said Monday, as weeping relatives awaited news after the biggest accident this year in China's chaotic mines.
An 800-member rescue team searched for the miners in the Xinjing Coal Mine in this dusty, hilly north China town, the official Xinhua News Agency said. There was no word on whether any of the miners was believed to be alive, four days after the mine flooded with water on Thursday.
Choking back tears, one miner's wife, Shen Wenhui, said she was "in despair" because she had no news of her husband's fate.
Rescue efforts appeared to run into problems: Pumps on hand to drain the mine stood idle at midday Monday, and people at the scene said there was no power to run them.
A miner quoted on state television said workers reported water leaking into the Xinjing mine at least three days before the accident.
"They were told that it did not matter and that they should continue to dig," said the miner, who wasn't identified by name. "The coal mine should bear the most responsibility."
The Xinjing disaster is in many ways typical of China's accident-plagued mining industry, which suffers about 6,000 deaths a year. With demand for coal high to fuel China's rapidly growing economy, mine operators often ignore safety regulations to dig out more coal and maximize profits.
Yet Xinjing also appears to have touched a nerve. While many mine accidents get little attention in the state-controlled media, the Xinjing disaster was being given prominent coverage in a sign of Beijing's displeasure.
State media and a senior official portrayed Xinjing as chaotically managed, accusing mine managers of illegal operations and trying to cover-up the accident. Nine mine managers were detained, but state television said Monday the owner was still at large.
The head of the national work safety office, Li Yizhong, said the mine was digging out more coal than its licensed capacity and that the trapped miners were working on a seam outside the mine's approved operating range, Xinhua reported. It called the disaster the worst this year.
Initially, managers reported only five miners were missing and tried to have their relatives driven across the provincial border to keep them away from reporters, state media said.
In an indication of the chaos on the ground, state media raised the number trapped to 44 and then 57, saying Monday the true number could be higher.
Many miners were migrants from elsewhere in China who were drawn by wages of up to $600 a month — a huge sum in a country with an annual average income of about $1,000.
A miner from the central province of Henan who would give only his surname, Wang, said he was in the mine at the time of the accident.
"I was near the entrance, and when we heard there was water, we ran," said Wang, who stood smoking a cigarette outside the shack he shares with other miners.
A co-worker who wouldn't give his name said accidents were frequent and that managers pressured them to dig faster or be fired.
As part of the cover-up, Shen Wenhui, the missing miner's wife, told The Associated Press that she and other relatives were persuaded by her husband's boss to board a minivan to another area that they were told would be a more comfortable place to wait.
But Shen said that after several hours on the road, the passengers learned from the driver that he was instructed to take them to a remote area. She said the angry passengers forced the driver to take them back to Datong, the main city nearby, while other minivans continued on to Inner Mongolia.