Many Trapped in Turkish Coal Mine

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -

An explosion and a fire Tuesday killed some 70 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey and trapped  hundreds more underground, the country’s disaster agency said as it launched a massive rescue operation.

It was not immediately clear how many more miners were still trapped in the coal mine in the town of Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul.

Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution center.

A government official said that the death toll was expected to rise further and Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said rescue efforts would last until the morning.

Earlier, Turkey’s disaster and emergency management agency said about 20 people had been rescued from the site, 11 of them with injuries.

Footage showed workers emerging out of the mine, helped by rescuers, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot. One wiped away tears on his jacket, another smiled, waved and flashed a “thumbs up” sign at onlookers.

The accident occurred during a shift change so the exact number of trapped workers was not known but the disaster agency later gave the number as “more than 200 workers.”

The disaster management agency also said authorities were preparing for the possibility that the death toll could jump dramatically, making arrangements to set up a cold storage facility to hold the corpses of miners recovered from the site.

“Evacuation efforts are underway. I hope that we are able to rescue them,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier in televised comments. His office said Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania on Wednesday over the accident and would visit Soma instead.

Rescuers were pumping fresh air into the mine and rescue teams from neighboring regions rushed to the area, said Taner, the energy minister, who immediately went to Soma to oversee the rescue operation.

But the rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometers (miles) long, said Cengiz Ergun, the leader of Manisa province, where the town is located.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.

Turkey’s worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.