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88 killed in Heilongjiang coal mine blast, 36 still trapped
Updated: 2005-11-28 15:38

An explosion ripped through a state-owned colliery in northeast China, killing 88 miners and trapping 36 underground.

A rescuer carries a miner trapped in a coal mine blast in Qitaihe, in northeast China's Heilongjiang province, November 28, 2005. An explosion ripped through the colliery, killing 88 miners and trapping 36 underground. [Reuters]

The blast late on Sunday was the latest disaster to strike Heilongjiang, whose capital city, Harbin, was held hostage for five days by a toxic spill coursing through the Songhua river that provides its water supply, forcing a shut-down of tap water.

Li Yizhong, head of the country's top work safety watchdog, urged about 270 rescue workers to spare no effort to save miners trapped at Dongfeng coal mine.

Eighty-eight of 221 men working underground at the time have been killed, while 97 have been rescued, state radio reported.

Investigators blamed the blast on coal-dust explosion, which knocked out all ventilation systems in the pit. The main system resumed operation on Monday.

The accident came about two weeks after an explosion at a chemical plant in nearby Jilin province poured 100 tonnes of cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua river.

An 80-km (50-mile) slick passed down the Songhua River and out of Harbin at the weekend.

Making no mention of the toxic spill, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao called last week for vigilance to prevent major accidents which cause huge casualties and property losses.

They urged law enforcement agencies to implement stricter inspection measures and punish those responsible in accordance with the law, media reports said without elaborating.

Taps were turned back on in Harbin, home to 9 million people, on Sunday and Heilongjiang provincial governor Zhang Zuoji drank tap water to prove it was safe.

But officials have warned residents to be on the lookout for symptoms of benzene poisoning, which can cause anemia, other blood disorders and kidney and liver damage.

On Monday, all 18 miners trapped by flooding at a separate accident at the Gaocun mine in the northern province of Hebei were confirmed dead, Xinhua news agency reported. Three mine managers disappeared soon after the flood, leaving rescue teams without a guide to search the underground warren.

The country has launched safety campaigns to clean up and shut down illegal mines in the hope that consolidating China's thousands of tiny and primitive operations will improve safety. Heilongjiang province said on Monday it would complete its consolidation by the new year, Xinhua reported.

But booming energy demand and high coal prices have driven some mine owners to ignore regulations and Sunday's blast, at a state-owned mine, shows that larger mines are not immune from disasters.

Dongfeng coal mine is run by a branch of the HeilongjiangLongmei Mining (Group) Co. Ltd. -- a conglomerate of four state-owned major coal businesses in the province, with a registered capital of 13 billion yuan.

China's worst coal mine accident this year killed 214 people at a state-run mine in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Accidents and disasters cause more than 1 million casualties annually in China. They also bring economic losses of 650 billion yuan each year, equivalent to 6 percent of gross domestic product, according to Wang Jikun, a senior official with the Ministry of Public Security.

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