XINTAI, Shandong Province -- China is still investigating the mine flood that has trapped 181 people at two pits in the eastern Shandong Province since Friday, and rescue work must come first, a safety official said on Wednesday.
More than 600 workers repair and reinforce the Wenhe River levee in Xintai, Shandong Province on August 21, 2007. [Xinhua]
"The State Council, or the Chinese cabinet, is yet to set up an investigation team," said Huang Yi, spokesman of the State Administration of Work Safety. "And we have not been able to determine the cause of the accident thus far."
Civil Affairs Minister Li Xueju told a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday that preliminary analysis of experts showed the flooding was a "natural disaster".
China has no compensation system for victims in natural disasters, yet the minimum compensation for people killed in mine mishaps is 200,000 yuan.
But in an exclusive interview with Xinhua earlier on Wednesday, Huang refuted some media reports that had blamed the flooding on a natural disaster or human factors alone, saying the work safety administration had not made any statement to that effect.
"The top priority at the moment is to speed up rescue work and do whatever we can to search for the victims," he told Xinhua.
Rescuers began their fifth day at the collieries on Wednesday after flood water swept through a 65-meter wide breach in the Wenhe River levee, inundating the Huayuan and Minggong mines, about 150 km south of Shandong's provincial capital Jinan, last Friday afternoon.
By 7:00 am on Wednesday, the water level at Huayuan Mine where 172 miners are trapped had fallen by 25.58 meters to 67.02 meters, just one meter lower than 15 hours before.
The rescue headquarters said they were still about 100 meters from the 14 nearest miners, who were 208 meters below the surface.
One more powerful pump became operational at around midday, bringing the drainage capacity to more than 1,500 cubic meters per hour.
Eighty-five relatives of the trapped miners have fallen sick because of grief and are receiving treatment in hospital, according to Huang Longhua, an official with the rescue headquarters tasked with consoling families of the victims.
The government has dispatched 134 medical workers to take care of the sick relatives, Huang said, adding that all the sick are in stable condition.
Managers at the Huayuan Mine have also sent 545 employees to counsel the families of the trapped miners.
Water resources specialists have blamed the disaster largely on heavy rain and inadequate flood prevention facilities.
Xintai, the city where the two ill-fated mines are located, reported 730 mm of precipitation from January 1 to August 17, according to local meteorological data.
"That's about the same volume of rainfall we had for the whole year," said Yin Changwen, a water conservation expert with the rescue headquarters.
The city's average annual precipitation was 745 mm, he said.
Between 2:00 am and 3:00 pm last Friday, the Dongzhou Reservoir on the upper reaches of the Weishui River, a tributary of the swollen Wenhe River, received 161 mm of rainfall, the biggest rain volume in 70 years, said Yin.
"The torrent from upstream poured down into the Wenhe River at 1,800 cubic meters per second, and instantly tore a breach in the levee," he said.
Before the breach was blocked early on Sunday to pave way for the rescue operation, an estimated 12.6 million cubic meters of water had poured down the two adjacent pits.
Experts admitted on Tuesday that hope for the miners was dimming, as it would take about 100 days to drain the water if 5,000 cubic meters were pumped out every hour.