When gas levels suddenly spiked deep in the Xinxing coal mine, Wang Jiguo grabbed two co-workers and they ran for their lives. Minutes later, there was a huge bang, a torrent of hot air and the earth shuddered.
Nearly two days later, at least 92 people are reported dead and 16 missing, the official Xinhua news agency said. The deadliest accident in China's mining industry for two years has highlighted how heavy demand for power-generating coal comes at a high human cost.
"Development is important, but the growth of GDP shouldn't be achieved at the price of miners' blood," said provincial governor Li Zhanshu, urging officials to better manage coal mines.
Coal is vital for China's economy, which is targeted to grow by 8 percent his year, and its 1.3 billion people, as it is used to generate about three-quarters of the country's electricity.
As search teams in mining carts descended Sunday in what authorities continued to call a rescue mission, fellow miners gathered in freezing weather near the still-steaming shaft and watched silently. One veteran of Xinxing (pronounced shin-shing), now retired after 29 years, looked at the twisted metal and pancaked buildings but remembered the mine below ground as "beautiful."
Blow to safety efforts
The blast at the nearly 100-year-old mine in Heilongjiang (pronounced HAY-long-jeeahng) province, near the Russian border, dealt a blow to the central government's race to improve safety, which has seen the shuttering or absorbing of hundreds of smaller, private mines into state-owned operations.
The government says the closure of about 1,000 dangerous small mines last year has helped cut fatalities. Yet hundreds still die in major accidents each year, even at state-run mines, such as a blast in Shanxi province in February that killed 78 and a gas leak in Chongqing municipality in May that killed 30.
After Saturday's accident, the Xinxing mine's director, deputy director and chief engineer were fired, said an employee, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The explosion at 2:30 a.m. Saturday shook the residents of Hegang, an aging city in China's Rust Belt where the streetside snow is gray with coal dust and exhaust.
Longtime residents said the mine had never suffered such an accident before.
"I had to come by and see it," said Tang Cunha, who stood behind the police tape at the blast site and compared the destruction around the mine shaft to that of a massive earthquake. "It's awful, it's awful," he said.
At the Xingshan People's Hospital, Dr. Chen, who gave only one name, recalled the faces of the nearly 40 injured miners brought in the day before: "They were terrified."
"It's a very safe mine," he said. "People never expected it."
More than 400 escaped
Of the 528 people reported working in the mine at the time of the explosion, 420 escaped, Xinhua reported. At the Hegang Mining Group General Hospital, which a spokesman said was treating 32 injured miners, a few were in the intensive care unit under police guard.
Survivors recounted their harrowing escapes. In an account reported by Xinhua, Wang Jiguo, 35, who monitored gas levels in the shaft, suddenly grabbed two other workers near him and started scrambling to the door, shouting: "Run quickly, don't carry anything!"
At the entrance of the shaft, Wang and Fu Maofeng, 48, phoned other workers who were still underground and told them to escape, Fu told Xinhua from his bed in intensive care.
"Just after we hung up the phone, we heard a loud bang from inside the shaft. The entrance of the shaft started shaking," Fu said. Then a wave of searing hot air slammed them to the ground, knocking them unconscious.
When he came to, Fu found himself lying in hospital, his face covered with scratches and burns on his left eye. "Our team has 10 people, and I don't know how they are now," Fu said.
Authorities say the 16 miners still missing are trapped about a third of a mile (half a kilometer) underground. One entrance was blocked, and rescue teams in orange work suits and yellow hard hats were sent underground in mining carts down a separate shaft.
Ventilation and power, which were lost after the blast, have been restored in the mine, and company officials remained hopeful of finding survivors.
"If we haven't found them, to us that means they are still alive," San Jingguang, a spokesman for the mining company, told reporters. "Rescuing people is still our first priority."
But since Sunday morning, officials at the site have reported no one rescued. Rescuers were still working underground on Sunday evening. On the surface near the shaft, a few workers and police sat quietly in a heated hut, waiting for news.