XINTAI, Shandong: Human error played a bigger role than chance in the levee breach that left 172 miners trapped underground, relatives of the men said.
A retired worker in his 60s told China Daily yesterday that the levee had been a problem for several years. He said it first flooded in 1989. Other people said the mine had flooded every year since 2002.
"Water was at calf level the first time the mine flooded. The managers must have thought it would be the same this time around," said Chen, 33, whose elder brother is among the trapped.
A miner who works for Huayuan Mining Co, but who declined to be identified, said the mine had experienced a similar accident last year, but on a smaller scale.
"Only a few died," he added.
Huayuan also reportedly received six phone calls from the Xintai administration of work safety on Friday, before the accident, but took no action.
The administration is said to have issued a notice to all local coalmines, urging them to stop production and evacuate miners during torrential rainstorms.
Huayuan's vice-general manager Zhang Canjun rejected the allegation, saying it was "absolutely impossible", without further elaboration.
But Chang Luo (not his real name), a worker at a nearby mine, said he was evacuated at around noon on Friday, while his brother, Huayuan miner Chang Chenqi (not real name), continued working and is still stuck somewhere underground.
In addition to refusing to take the work safety agency's orders, Huayuan is also being criticized for sending workers underground knowing that the mine could flood.
"The workers from the day shift, most of whom managed to escape later, reported the rising water levels and submerged work areas to the management, but the company did nothing," said a man surnamed Cao.
His brother-in-law is trapped in the mine.
Liu, a resident of Xidu village, which is near the site of the accident, said that miners were not the only people hurt by the levee break.
"An old guard from a brick factory at our village was the first to arrive at the scene. He fell and was immediately submerged," he said.
The relatives of the miners said that what angered them most was that Huayuan's management apparently did not try hard enough to rescue their loved ones.
"We saw with our own eyes that at around 3 pm on Friday, a group of Huayuan managers, including deputy mine operator Huangfu Tingping, were on site directing rescuers to close the breach with small agricultural vehicles," Chen said.
They said the miners all had cell phones with them, and the managers could have tried to warn them about the flood, as rescuers in Henan Province did earlier this month.
"This wasted the best chance to save our brothers," said 37-year-old Zhao, whose younger brother is trapped inside the mine.
"If the PLA and the armed police were there at that time, (the miners) would definitely be out by now."