The Soma mine accident is now the worst of its kind in Turkey’s history. Yet even as the body count continues to mount, the country's population is demanding answers as to how a disaster of such tragic magnitude can have been allowed to happen.
At least 284 workers died when a fire broke out at the coal mine after an explosion on Tuesday afternoon. The final figure is likely to climb to around 300 dead, according to Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz. “I believe that this will be concluded with a death toll of 299–302 of our worker brothers,” he told reporters today.
Some of the miners were trapped as deep as 1,377 feet underground and most died from carbon monoxide poisoning, Yildiz said earlier in the week. Funerals are already underway. The mass burials of victims began on Thursday, and more took place for today.
The accident has caused an outpouring of anger from a public that feels the deaths are the result of official negligence and lax safety standards. It has also stirred up further resentment towards Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after recent bans on social media and the unprecedented Gezi Park protests of last summer.
'There is something that is called a labor accident in literature. This is part of its nature.'
Today, police used plastic bullets, water cannons, and tear gas on protesters in Soma. Protesters threw rocks back at police and there were injuries on both sides, according to local media.
Demonstrations also took place elsewhere in the country, including in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Crowds of protesters took to the streets describing the incident as a “massacre” and calling for Yildiz and Erdogan to resign. Turkish trade unions also held a one-day strike to protest mining safety standards
More protests are planned in Istanbul at 9 PM local time, activists told VICE News.
Scenes from Izmir on Friday night. Video uploaded by senem_erbas.
Many people feel that the AKP ignored concerns about the safety of the mine. Ozgur Ozel, a member of the Republican People's Party (CHP), told reporters that the AKP blocked a proposal for a parliamentary inquiry on coal mine work safety in Soma just three weeks ago.
The AKP has now submitted a proposal of their own for a parliamentary inquiry into the incident. Yildiz promised today that any negligence would be punished. "We won't take any notice of their tears… If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector," he said.
However, this is unlikely to appease the AKP’s opponents. Erdogan went on the defense as the tragedy unfolded. Speaking at the site of the disaster on Wednesday, he claimed that such accidents were “normal” — seemingly to pre-empt already mounting criticism. "There is something that is called a labor accident in literature. This is part of its nature," he said, going on to list fatal accidents that have taken place across the globe stretching back to the industrial revolution.
Erdogan also criticized the CHP safety inquiry proposal, describing it as an attempt to “change the political agenda,” and saying it “had nothing to do with the Soma mine,”according to the Hurriyet Daily News.
Unsurprisingly, his comments did not go over well with Soma's residents, who were already angry with the prime minister. Erdogan was greeted by booing crowds as he arrived in the town prior to his speech and protesters mobbed his convoy, beating a car containing either him or part of his entourage with their fists.
Protesters in Soma converged on the convoy of the Prime Minister on May 14, following a deadly mining accident in the Turkish province of Manisa. Video via Onur Kilic.
Afterwards, a brief attempt at pressing the flesh in the streets led to him being ushered into a local supermarket by his bodyguards pursued by angry crowds. In the ensuing scuffle, Erdogan allegedly punched a protester and called him a “sperm of Israel.”
The same day, one of Erdogan’s advisors, Yusuf Yerkel, apparently delivered a wild kick to a protester lying facedown on the ground and had restrained by a couple of police officers. Yerkel is already back at work.
Pictures of the incident were circulated on Erdogan’s least-favorite social network, Twitter. A photograph of an opposition minister making a parliamentary speech on April 29 warning that conditions in the mines are unsafe while two AKP minsters chat in the background was also widely shared.
An opposition party MP talking on the lack of safety in Soma Coal Mine (April 29), two gov— Turkey Observed (@TurkeyObserved) May 13, 2014
The Turkish mining industry has a woeful safety record. The worst accident prior to Soma was in 1992, when 263 died in a gas explosion near the coastal town of Zonguldak. In total, 3,000 mineworkers have been killed and 100,000 injured in accidents since 1941, according to local sources.
The mine’s owner, Soma Holding, which is one of the biggest coal producers in Turkey, said it is still unclear how the accident occurred and it would launch an investigation. However, it simultaneously denied any wrongdoing and said that the facility had the "highest safety measures and constant controls." Soma operating manager Akin Celik said in a press conference today: “There was no negligence on our side.”
Operations will continue in the mine, after “all the measures are taken” and a safe room has been completed.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Labor and Social Security Ministry said in a statement that the company had been inspected on four occasions over the past two years, and that at the most recent inspection, which took place two months ago, everything had complied with regulations.
However, a lack of safe room for the miners to shelter in case of fire has been identified as a crucial factor in the huge number of deaths. Soma CEO Alp Gurkan said the firm had no legal obligation to build such a chamber. He claimed that they had planned to do so anyway, and that if the accident had happened a few months later, the workers would have survived. Operations will continue in the mine, he added, after “all the measures are taken” and a safe room has been completed.
Gürkan said in a 2012 interview that when Soma Holding took over the mine from the government in 2005 it had promised to reduce production costs for a ton of coal for $140 to $24. A 2010 report conducted by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers found that there were a number of dangers and potential for disasters and proposed ways to mitigate the dangers. None of them was addressed.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck