SOMA, TURKEY: With photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests and chanting the names of lost miners, grieving relatives laid their dead to rest in mass burials Thursday, as gravediggers labored to make room for scores more victims of Turkey’s worst mining disaster.
“The love of my life is gone,” women wailed loudly, swaying and singing improvised laments about the departed as bodies were lowered, one by one, into the freshly dug graves.
Rescue teams recovered another nine victims, raising the death toll to 283 from Tuesday’s disaster, with at least 140 miners believed still trapped underground, according to government figures.
Rage blended with grief as revulsion over poor safety conditions and what some perceived as government indifference set off protests across Turkey. “It’s not an accident, it’s murder,” read a banner waved by trade unionists who marched through the streets of Istanbul.
The disaster has stirred up new hostility toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and thrown his presidential ambitions off stride. Tarnishing his reputation further, Turkish newspapers published a photograph Thursday of one of Erdogan’s aides kicking a protester who was being held on the ground by armed police.
At a graveyard in the mining town of Soma, where coal has been the main industry for decades, mourners said they spent their whole lives fearing a disaster like Tuesday’s, in which an explosion set off a deadly fire just as workers were preparing for a shift change, trapping hundreds underground. No miner has been brought out alive since before dawn Wednesday.
“The wives of the miners kiss their husbands in the morning. When they come back, even if they are five minutes late, everyone starts calling,” said Gulizar Donmez, 45, whose husband and father are both miners and whose neighbor was among the victims. “You never know what is going to happen.”
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the search for survivors was being hampered by a fire that had spread to a conveyor system — engulfing a 650-foot stretch of tunnel — but progress was made Thursday toward extinguishing it. Rescue operations have been suspended several times as fire created toxic fumes and too-risky conditions for rescuers.
Emergency crews detected a drop in carbon monoxide levels “which means that the fire has gotten smaller,” Yildez said.
Erdogan, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon for Turkey’s presidential election in August, was greeted by angry protests during a visit to Soma on Wednesday after he referred to mining accidents as “ordinary things” that “happen all the time.”
An Erdogan aide, Yusuf Yerkel,” was photographed kicking a protester being pinned to the ground by special forces police.
Yerkel issued a statement Thursday expressing regret, but also claimed he was provoked.