XINTAI, Shandong: Rescue workers are racing to reach the 181 miners who have been trapped in two collieries in East China's Shandong Province since Friday, despite the decreasing chances that they are still alive days after a swollen river flooded the pits.
An estimated 12.6 million cu m of water swept through a 65-m wide breach in the Wenhe River levee and poured down the two pits before the breach was blocked early on Sunday.
The volume of water involved was "unprecedented" in any of the colliery flooding accidents in recent years, said Shang Dengying, an official with the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety.
"It will take about 100 days to drain the flood water, even if 5,000 cu m is pumped out every hour," said Bu Changsen, a flood prevention expert with the rescue headquarters.
Not to mention the silt clearing, ventilation and pipe laying operations in the pit, he said.
"The rescue operation is not progressing as quickly as we hoped," he added.
By yesterday afternoon, the water level at Huayuan Mine, where 172 miners have been trapped since Friday, had fallen by 24.5 m to 68.1 m. Yet the emergency rescue headquarters said the rescuers were still an estimated 100 m from the 14 nearest miners, who were 208 m below the surface.
Four pumps are extracting 660 cu m of water per hour from the Huayuan Mine, which is about 150 km south of the provincial capital of Jinan.
About 10 km away, another pump was removing water from Minggong Mine, where nine miners were trapped by 145,000 cu m of flood water.
Two more powerful pumps, each designed to draw 1,000 cu m per hour, were shipped to the site on Saturday, but mechanics are having difficulties installing the machines in the bumpy, low-lying mining area.
"We need to install a new derrick first, and the two new pumps are not likely to be operational any time before Wednesday afternoon," said Ba Yanping, a senior executive of China Coal Group.
Four drilling sets were called in from the Shengli Oilfield on Monday to drill wells to divert water from the flooded shafts, but had dug only 16 m deep so far. Rescue headquarters are waiting for more powerful drilling machines to speed up the operation.
The flooding occurred at around 2:30 pm on Friday, first at Huayuan Mining Co Ltd in the city of Xintai, and later at Minggong Mine.
In the Huayuan pit, 756 miners were working when the accident happened, and 584 managed to escape. The mine's managers, headed by general manager Xu Qinyu, were at the site to guide the disoriented miners in the evacuation.
"That was the fortunate part of a thousand misfortunes," said Li Yizhong, director of the State Administration of Work Safety.
Yin Changwen, a hydrological expert, said the embankments of the Wenhe River had structural flaws as they were built on sandy earth.
"Even if the amount of rainfall were normal, the embankments were still at risk of being breached," said Yin while discussing the cause of the levee breach.
He added that the rain that caused the flooding on Friday "comes around once in every 70 years".
Of the 95 people working in the Minggong pit, 86 escaped.
Families of the victims, most of whom live in the Huayuan miners' community nearby, were awaiting news of the progress of the rescue effort.
The tragedy has been an immense blow for the community of 5,500 families: One out of every 50 families has someone trapped down in the pit, and some of the victims are related.
Wang Kuitao, who escaped from almost 1,000 m below ground in the Huayuan pit, hoped the government would do everything possible to rescue the workers. He has not yet returned home because his younger brother, an electrician, remains trapped.
The management of Huayuan mine has sent 545 employees to counsel the families. Sixty family members have been sent to hospital with high blood pressure or heart problems, said Huangpu Tinghua, deputy general manager of Huayuan Mining Co Ltd.
But as hope fades among relatives of the trapped men, one of them stood out and blamed the tragedy on human error.
A middle-aged female Huayuan worker who supervised water pumps on the day of the accident told China Daily that she had reported to the company numerous flood warnings hours before the tragedy.
Realizing the water levels must have exceeded the gauge's limit, she asked the center to sound the alarm, but nobody took notice.
"I called them seven or eight times between then until 10 am, but they did not answer," she said.
In another development, the All China Federation of Trade Unions yesterday allocated 1 million yuan to help with the disaster relief effort at the two flooded coal-mines.
Meantime, the Shandong federation of trade unions, Shandong's Coal Mine Trade Unions and the Tai'an Trade Union contributed a combined 1.3 million yuan to help with the rescue effort and to help the families of the trapped miners.
Xinhua contributed to the story