Image: Relatives blocked by security official
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
Relatives of a missing miner — one of 172 — try to get into the Huayuan Mining Co. office building after their demands for information went unmet.
updated 8/20/2007 8:33:11 PM ET 2007-08-21T00:33:11

A quick outburst of violence by relatives of 172 miners trapped in a flooded coal mine brought a tearful promise of Chinese government action Monday, even as state media said the miners’ chances for survival were dwindling.

Several mines in the hilly eastern China area said worries about flooding caused them to shut down Friday morning, raising questions about why the Huayuan Mining Co. continued to operate. A dike collapsed later that day, flooding the Huayuan mine and stranded the 172, as well as nine others in a smaller mine run by another company.

Water levels fell slightly in the 2,800-foot deep Huayuan mine Monday as industrial pumps began pulling off water, an expert involved in the effort said. Even so the government’s Xinhua News Agency said hopes of finding survivors were fading.

Already high tempers among the miner’s families boiled over Monday, after spending four anxious days without word from the privately owned Huayuan or government officials about the rescue efforts.

Two brothers of a missing miner and his grown son, frustrated that an earlier request for a briefing had not been met, and two other men smashed a reception window and display cases at a company offices with wooden sticks. They then rushed around the corner into the sprawling Huayuan compound, followed by five other relatives.

Barred by police and security guards from entering the main administration building, they staged a sit-down protest demanding regular briefings on the rescue.

“Why does the whole world know what’s going on, but we people right here don’t? We have to get on the Internet to find out,” said Zhang Chuantong, one of the brothers.

Tearful promise
After days of seeming official indifference, a vice governor of Shandong, the eastern province where the mine is located, came out and met with them.

“Our hearts are as sad as yours,” Vice Governor Wang Junming said, crying as he spoke. He promised them the government would be more responsive.

Large-scale accidents like the mine flood present a test for the communist leadership under President Hu Jintao to prove it can deliver on pledges to improve the lives of farmers and workers. The coal industry is a particular challenge. Accidents kill an average of 13 miners a day, yet coal feeds most of the country’s energy demands.

In the accident’s wake, family members have raised questions about Huayuan’s management, especially whether enough attention was paid to safety.

Production stops
After unusually heavy rains lashed the area around the small city of Xintai, 370 miles southeast of Beijing, last week, at least two other mines stopped production Friday, hours before the Wen River smashed through the dike at 2:30 p.m.

Employees at the state-owned Xintai Wenhe Coal Mine and the Xintai Hanzhuang Coal Mine said workers were either kept out or ordered back to the surface out of safety concerns.

“We suspended production from 8 a.m. on August 17 because we noticed a warning given by an expert on the night of 16th that the water level of the river had risen too fast,” said a man in Xintai Wenhe’s administrative office, who gave only his surname, Wang.

Phone calls to several other coal mines in the area and to the Xintai coal mine safety bureau were not answered. Huayuan executives could not be reached for comment.

Wang Dequan, a government official in the city of Tai’an, which oversees Xintai, said, “Smaller mines stopped work during heavy rains because they lack the safety equipment that larger mines like the Huayuan mine have.”

Miner tells his experience
In one of the first accounts of the accident, a miner said he was 2,300 feet deep in the shaft at turnaround for the tracked carts that transport miners when a warning came over the mine’s phone system about the breach. Wang Kuitao said he rushed down about 600 feet and saw water rushing so quickly it could sweep people away.

“The sound was so great you couldn’t hear what anyone was saying,” Wang said at a government-arranged news conference. He said he stayed in the mine for five hours helping others to the surface.

While rescue officials have given no indication if any of the trapped miners are still alive, one expert said their approximate location is known.

“We’ve determined the general location of the miners, the general area. There’s still some hope,” said Bu Changsheng, a water engineering expert.

Appeals, threats used as tactics
In trying to tamp down the anger of the miners’ families, Huayuan and the government have used a combination of appeals and threats. Family members said they were warned to wait at home and not to talk to the media

One woman, whose husband is believed to be among those trapped, said she was given the warning by two company officials at apartment Sunday and told her to wait at home.

“The company sent people over yesterday to tell us not to go out and not to talk to other people about the situation,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “They did not give us any explanation. They just told us to stay at home.”

Fewer family members gathered in an alleyway leading to a company gate than the dozens who massed there over the weekend. By Monday morning, it was hung with banners expressing sympathy.

One read: “Nature has no sympathy, people have sympathy, but the Communist Party is the most sympathetic.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Emotions run high over mining disaster

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