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Rescuers search for missing miners
Updated: 2005-11-29 21:12

Rescuers in northeast China worked in subfreezing temperatures Tuesday to search for three coal miners who were trapped after an explosion killed 146 others.

The blast in the Dongfeng Coal Mine late Sunday prompted national leaders to demand stricter enforcement of safety rules in China's mines — by far the world's deadliest, with thousands of fatalities a year in fires, floods and other accidents.

On Tuesday, roads leading to the mine were blocked several miles away, with police officers and vehicles standing guard.

Search efforts were still going on at sundown.

The chance of survival was low because of a high concentration of poisonous gas in the tunnel, Song Kaicheng, an engineer with the group that owns the mine, was cited as saying by the Xinhua News Agency.

Inside the mine compound, rescue workers wearing orange jumpsuits and respirators could be seen making their sway to the mouth of the coal pit.

Seventy-two workers have been saved, domestic media said.

Xinhua said 146 were killed and state television said two more people died above ground in the blast. It wasn't immediately clear if they were miners.

A man who answered the telephone at the coal mine said that there had been a meeting with relatives Tuesday morning and that mine officials were arranging for counseling and compensation.

The man, who gave only his family name, Liu, refused to give any more details.

The official China News Service said relatives were to receive up to $25,000 in compensation.

The disaster is a setback for Chinese officials struggling to improve safety in the coal mining industry.  

One man who gave only his family name, Li, said he was hoping for news about his son. Reporters trying to speak with dozens of relatives waiting outside were swiftly escorted off the premises.

Beijing has unveiled one safety initiative after another in recent years. It has announced the creation of a national network of safety inspectors, stricter fire standards and shorter working hours for miners to prevent fatigue.

Authorities say they have shut down more than 12,000 coal mines this year for safety inspections. Thousands have been ordered to improve their facilities, and many others aren't expected to reopen.

The government said the explosion in Qitaihe was blamed on airborne coal dust that ignited. But there was no word on whether it was believed to involve misconduct or human error.

The town has seen a series of fatal mining accidents. In May 2004, 12 people were killed in an explosion. Blasts also killed 17 in March and another nine in May this year.

The Qitaihe disaster came as the nearby city of Harbin was struggling to recover from a toxic spill in the Songhua River that forced the government to cut off water supplies for five days.

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