Relatives help a rescued miner in hospital Sunday after Saturday's blast in Hegang, Heilongjiang province. [Feng Yongbin]
When Wang Jiguo first noticed a sudden rise in gas levels in the Xinxing Coal Mine, he shouted to more than 500 colleagues underground to get out right away.
Soon afterward, a blast rocked the site and shook the surrounding area in Hegang, Heilongjiang province.
"We were around the gate when it blew. All we heard was a big bang," said 48-year-old Fu Maofeng, who has worked at the mine for three decades.
"Before we knew it, a heat wave hit us and knocked me right out. Pieces of brick and stone were thrown all over the place."
Mine safety worker Wang, 35, had managed to save many of his colleagues and is now in a coma in hospital.
Officials say 420 of the 528 miners working underground at the time escaped the blast.
At least 92 were killed.
The force of the blast could be felt as far as 10 km away.
In the wake of the blast, Heilongjiang Governor Li Zhanshu said the province would encourage larger mines to merge with small local collieries.
"Development is the top priority, but gross domestic product cannot be traded with the lives and blood of employees," Li said.
"We cannot pursue GDP with blood."
Tales of grit and valor have spread around hospitals as more than 500 rescuers raced against time to save the 16 people still trapped underground and feared dead.
Authorities at the mine also confirmed late yesterday afternoon that Geng Yi, a divisional leader and Liu Zhongyu, a deputy captain, died trying to save more lives. No more personal details of the duo were given.
The mine conducts monthly to bimonthly fire and flood emergency drills, safety officer Fan Minghua told China Daily, adding that he heard two separate explosions at the mine on Saturday.
Xinxing, a State-owned mine, has "never reported any incidents before", according to Wang Chaojun, who has been with the colliery for 33 years.
"I heard a bang outside my office. I first thought it was a knock on the door," said Wang, 50.
"When I walked out the door, I found nobody was there. I soon realized something must be wrong."
His son, Wang Xingang, was working underground. The senior Wang called him numerous times, but there was no answer.
"I suddenly couldn't feel my legs," the senior carpenter recalled. "He's the only son I've got."
Fortunately, the junior Wang, an electrician, managed to grope his way out of the smoke after the explosion. He is now receiving treatment in hospital.
A total of 29 miners were hospitalized, including six with serious injuries, according to Xinhua News Agency. Around 800 medical staff joined rescue operations.
The Xinxing mine is owned and operated by the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group. Unlike most small and medium collieries, where accidents typically occur, Xinxing produces 12 million tons of coal a year.
The blast took place during a five-day provincial inspection on work safety conditions in Hegang, local media reported.
Zhang Rongji, deputy work chief of Heilongjiang, and five other inspectors arrived in the city three days prior to the explosion. Local leaders promised to "ensure sustainable, steady work safety conditions" for the remainder of the year.