ANKARA, Turkey — An explosion and a fire Tuesday killed at least 17 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey and trapped another 200 or more underground, the country’s disaster agency said as it launched a massive rescue operation.
A power distribution unit exploded Tuesday afternoon at a mine in the town of Soma, local official Mehmet Bahattin Atci told reporters. The town is 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Istanbul.
Turkey’s disaster and emergency management agency also said about 20 people had been rescued from the site so far, 11 of them with injuries.
Television footage showed people cheering and applauding as some trapped workers were helped out of the mine. One wiped away a tear on his jacket, another smiled and waved at onlookers.
The accident occurred during a shift change so the exact number of trapped workers was not known. Atci had said the blast left between 200 to 300 miners underground but the disaster agency later gave the number as “more than 200 workers.”
“Evacuation efforts are underway. I hope that we are able to rescue them,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised comments.
The death toll was expected to rise. The disaster agency said authorities were trying to arrange for a cold air depot to temporarily store the dead.
Rescuers were pumping fresh air into the mine and rescue teams from neighbouring regions rushed to the area, said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who immediately went to Soma to oversee the rescue operation.
“It is a serious accident,” he told reporters. “Our priority is to reach our miner brothers.”
But the rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometres (miles) long, said Cengiz Ergun, the leader of Manisa province, where the town is located.
“The situation inside is troubling,” Ergun told NTV television.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the mine and the hospital in Soma seeking news of their loved ones.
SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., which owns the mine, confirmed that a number of its workers were killed but would not give a specific figure. It said the accident occurred despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls” and added that an investigation was being launched.
“Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones,” the company said in a statement.
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.