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    After the smoke clears...
Jiang Zhuqing
2005-12-10 06:40

TANGSHAN: Liuguantun, an ordinary village in North China's Hebei Province, suddenly fell into the limelight and occupied the headlines of major Chinese media overnight.

What made the tranquil village become famous is a colliery explosion, a fatal accident that killed at least 87 miners and caused 21 others to go missing on Wednesday, November 30.

In the yard of the coal mine were dozens of police cars, funeral vehicles and ambulances parked side by side; scores of rescuers in yellow uniforms entered and exited from a pit that had swallowed dozens of lives.

The explosion is believed to be the most serious accident in the mining history of Tangshan, a city rebuilt on the debris of a heavy earthquake 29 years ago.

Moreover, it was the third major blast within two weeks in the nation. A November 27 explosion in the Dongfeng coal mine in Heilongjiang Province killed 171; and on December, 42 miners died when a mine flooded in Henan Province, reports said.

Two days after the blast, people were beginning to believe that the surviving hope for the trapped ones was fading, despite the intensified rescue efforts.

Choking gas had forced rescue teams to retreat from the mine several times to wait for repairs to its ventilation system, said officials in charge of the rescue.

As the smoke clears, Tangshan is grappling with the blast's aftermath.

Dealing with the aftermath

More than 400 local officials in Kaiping District where the coal mine is located were mobilized and divided into 80 panels to comfort the families of the dead.

Each family of the dead miner would receive 220,000 yuan (US$27,100) as compensation, officials said. More than 60 dead miners' families have been arranged to live in nearby hotels.

All the 29 injured miners have been sent to Tanggang Hospital in the city and another nearby hospital for treatment.

The accident took place at about 3:30 pm on Wednesday just before the change of the work shift, said 44-year-old Xu Youlai at Tanggang Hospital. "I fell into a comma after the accident, and found I was in the hospital after I was awakened."

Long Shengpei, 34, recalled the tragedy and called his survival a "lucky escape."

"Dense smoke suddenly rushed into my face before I realized it was a gas explosion," Long said.

Long, together with his six colleagues, tried with all of their strength to run for their lives.

But the 300-metre lane before them seemed endless; three of Long's colleagues collapsed and later were found dead at the middle of the path.

Long fell to the ground before he reached the entrance of No 2 Lane. He then inhaled some oxygen by using a oxygen tank, and was carried to safety during the rescue, which begun half an hour after the blast.

Having worked in the coal mine for just two months, Long told reporters that the colliery did not train workers to use the breath machine at all.

Long is from Guizhou Province and earned a salary of about 2,000 yuan (US$246.70) a month before the accident.

When asked if he would still work as a miner after he recovered, he said he has no plans for the future.

Some other injured miners also complained there were not enough oxygen tanks with them when they worked underground.

Liu Youren, vice-president of the hospital, said Tanggang Hospital has received more than 20 victims. Most of them suffered from gas poisoning and some got burns and injuries.

Suffering from serious carbon monoxide suffocation, Li Shougeng, a dispatcher who had worked in the coal mine for 11 years, could not remember his own name.

Lying in bed at a yard of Tanggang Hospital with tears in eyes, Li could hardly remember what had happened underground when the blast took place.

Being a dispatcher, he contacted the ground dispatchers' office just minutes before the accident, which told him everything was fine.

"I was not scared because the gas never surpassed the safety limit under the pit before," said Li. "Besides, there is a gas supervision system working well in the colliery."

Even after the explosion, he led five or six workers returning underground to carry dozens of their colleagues to safety, Li said.

Agreeing with Li, Cui Xilin, a technician from Fengfeng of Handan in Hebei Province who had worked in Liuguantun for two years, said the colliery usually paid much attention to work safety, and every mistake by miners that threatened work safety would be punished.

All the management officials in charge of safety in the coal mine were retired technicians who had worked with State-owned mines, he stressed.

On the wall before the dining hall, reporters could see a poster dated December 3 which read that miner He Zhiguo, who forgot to close the door when transporting materials underground, was fined 100 yuan (US$12.3) as punishment.

Tightened measures ahead

Meanwhile, an official surnamed Zhao from the State Administration of the Work Safety (SAWS) told reporters that the coal mine was under construction, but it had begun to produce coal illegally without having passed all the work safety tests.

Besides, "the owner spent 116 million yuan (US$14.3 million) to purchase the coal mine and spent another 5 million yuan (US$616,500) to buy the 7 million tons of deposit underground," she said.

The Liuguantun Colliery, formerly State-owned and classified as a low-gas coal mine, was privatized in 2002 with a planned annual production of 150,000 tons, officials said.

Startled by the grave work safety situation, the local Hebei provincial government have started to fight back, reports said.

For example, the provincial procuratorate department detained five suspected officials, including the director of Work Safety Bureau in Xingtai County, where a mining accident on November 6 caused the death of 33 workers.

Moreover, the Hebei provincial government on Thursday decided to tighten measures on production safety as a whole in the wake of the deadly coal mine blast, Xinhua News Agency said.

Mining accidents killed 6,027 in China last year, statistics from SAWS indicated. The government has been trying to close small mines to consolidate the industry. It has also demanded officials to sever financial links with mines and called for managers to head underground with miners on each shift to check safety standards.

But regulations are often ignored. Production is pushed beyond safe limits and closed mines are reopened illegally, experts said.

(China Daily 12/10/2005 page3)


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