Image: Mine workers prepare to send equipment down the entrance to the Wangjialing coal mine
Peter Parks  /  AFP - Getty Images
Mine workers prepare to send equipment down the entrance to the Wangjialing coal mine where rescuers are trying to find more than 150 workers trapped in the flooded mine.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 3/31/2010 6:59:37 AM ET 2010-03-31T10:59:37

Mine officials ignored safety rules and danger warnings in their haste to open a coal mine in northern China, leading to a flood that has trapped 153 workers since the weekend, a government safety body said Wednesday.

Officials say there have been no signs of life at the Wangjialing mine in Shanxi province since 108 miners escaped or were rescued following the flooding Sunday.

Desperate relatives have traveled from afar to the site to demand that efforts to save the missing miners be speeded up.

About 1,000 rescuers have been working around the clock at the mine in southern Shanxi province, tunneling and laying pipes to drain away water, but hopes are fading.

The flood was triggered after workers who were tunneling broke through into an old shaft filled with water, the State Administration of Work Safety said in a notice posted on its Web site.

It also said the shaft became overcrowded as extra tunneling crews were assigned in a rush to finish the work, and that warning signs went unheeded.

"Water leaks were found numerous times on underground shafts," it said, but the mine's managers "did not follow the safety instructions or guidelines when the leaks were reported and did not take the actions necessary to evacuate people."

Families demand action
Dozens of family members have turned up at the mine demanding explanations and quicker action in heated confrontations with officials.

Video: Rescue effort By Wednesday, most of the relatives had been moved off the site to a nearby town and security was beefed up. The main, winding mountain road leading to the mine was sealed off by police, who allowed only authorized vehicles to pass.

At the site, dozens of police officers, many carrying batons, stood guard around workers' dormitories, preventing the remaining two dozen or so family members from getting close to the mine shaft.

"They've been standing here all night," said Wang Wenkui, 24, a miner who lives at the dormitory. "It's because of the family members who were here yesterday. They don't want them to cause trouble."

Cao Yuying, 30, from Henan province, said he was waiting for news about his 45-year-old uncle who is stuck below, but was getting impatient.

"They are not working fast enough. I believe they are not actually interested in rescue work. They are just trying to resume production," said Cao, who added police and government officials had tried to keep him in a hotel in a nearby city, but he had made it out to the mine at night.

"I will wait here until they rescue people," he said.

'We are the weak ones'
A Wangjialing miner said workers were angered because officials did not respond to their demands for answers.

"The victims stuck underground may not be my family but they are like my brothers. Our hearts are filled with anger," said 40-year-old Zhong Nanxiang, who has been a miner for 20 years.

"But who can we turn to for an answer?" he said. "The leaders won't talk to us. We are from the lowest level of society. We are the weak ones. You call this the People's Republic of China?"

The preliminary findings of the safety body confirmed what some miners and state media have said in the days following the flood. The official China Daily reported Wednesday that managers of the company in charge of construction have gone missing. It said they were the ones who ignored alarms about water leaks.

It could prove to be the deadliest mine accident in China since a coal mine flood in eastern Shandong province in August 2007 killed 172 miners. The latest disaster is a setback to recent, significant improvements in Chinese mines, which have a dire safety record. They are the world's deadliest, claiming thousands of lives each year.

Rescue efforts continued with large cranes lifting heavy metal pipes off trucks and onto the ground where workers measured and cut them. Officials in green military-style coats and red safety helmets huddled together in discussions around the entrance to a shaft, pointing to sheets of papers in their hands. Workers bent over to check levels of large oxygen tanks meant for ensuring sufficient air supply to rescuers underground.

The work safety agency said 261 workers were inside the Wangjialing mine when it flooded Sunday, and 108 escaped or were rescued. The 153 workers who remained underground were believed to be trapped in nine different places in the mine, which was flooded with up to 5 million cubic feet of water, state television said.

In an indication of the slow progress, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that as of Tuesday night, pumping had dropped the water level in the flooded shaft by about six inches.

The mine, which was not yet in operation when the accident happened, covers about 70 square miles. Xinhua said it was expected to produce 6 million tons of coal annually once it opened later this year.

Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners in China last year, down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record, according to the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety. That is an average of more than seven miners a day in 2009, down from 19 in 2002.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Coal miners trapped

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  1. A rescued miner is taken out of the flooded Wangjialing coal mine in Xiangning, north China's Shanxi Province, on Monday, April 5. More than 100 Chinese miners were pulled out alive after being trapped for over a week in the flooded coal mine, where some ate sawdust and strapped themselves to the shafts' walls with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept. (Yan Yan / Xinhua via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A coal miner rescued from the Wangjialing Coal Mine is rushed into a hospital in the town of Hejing on April 5. The miners were in their eighth day underground when rescuers were finally able to reach them. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Residents wait for the arrival of miners rescued from the Wangjialing Coal Mine on April 5. Of the 153 initially trapped, there are still 38 miners in the shaft. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A survivor receives medical treatment at a hospital after being rescued from the flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine on April 5, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Health workers wait for the arrival of miners rescued from the Wangjialing Coal Mine at the entrance to a hospital in the town of Hejing in north China's Shanxi province on April 5. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rescuers carry survivors at the entrance of the flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine on April 5. At least 114 miners have been pulled alive from a flooded coal mine after more than seven days trapped in the pitch dark, prompting cheers from officials who hailed the rescue a miracle. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ambulance cars line up at the entrance of the flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine on April 5. (Donald Chan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A survivor is rescued from the flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine early on Monday, April 5. (Xinhua / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ambulances line up at the site of the mine accident near Hejin, China, on April 4. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Water gushes from pipelines used to remove water from the flooded mine. (Donald Chan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A rescuer washes himself on April 1 after working at the accident site. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rescuers prepare to go down into the mine on March 31. (Donald Chan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A miner participating in the rescue efforts pauses at the site on April 1. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mine workers prepare to send equipment down the entrance to the Wangjialing coal mine. China's work safety watchdog has blamed lax standards at the coal mine for the huge flood. Rescuers have not seen any signs of life from the pit. (Peter Parks / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Paramilitary policemen walk near the flooded mine, where angry relatives have gathered calling for more action and answers. (Shaw Du / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rescuers take a break from the round-the-clock battle to rescue the trapped miners. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A relative of a trapped coal mine worker gestures to the police outside the flooded mine. Families and co-workers expressed anger at what they felt was the unresponsiveness of those in charge of the mine's operations and rescue efforts. (Donald Chan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A rescue worker takes a break. Heavy-duty pumps are being used in an attempt to clear the water. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A woman cries on Tuesday, March 30, outside the flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine, where 153 miners are trapped. Hundreds of rescuers aided by heavy-duty pumps were at work at the site in Xiangning county in northern China's Shanxi province. Families and co-workers expressed anger at what they felt was the unresponsiveness of those in charge of the mine's operations and rescue efforts. (Shaw Du / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Relatives of mine workers react to the speed of recovering efforts. Some 1,000 rescue workers were rotating on shifts to try to drain enough water to reach the trapped miners, but the rescue effort could take days, and there had been no communication with the trapped miners. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Rescuers are shown during operations to free the miners, who were trapped deep underground. They were digging a new mine and may accidentally have broken into a network of old, water-filled shafts. (Chinafotopress / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Workers reported underground water leaks days before a flood coursed through the Wangjialing coal mine in northern China. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Rescuers stand during a break at the Wangjialing mine. (Stringer Shanghai / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Rescuers prepare pipes to pump water from the mine on March 29. (China Daily / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Mine workers look on as rescuers unload metal pipes on March 29. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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