100-plus trapped miners freed in China 'miracle'

More than 100 Chinese miners are pulled out alive after being trapped for more than a week in a flooded coal mine.

XIANGNING, China // What started as a faint tap of hope on Friday finished as an outburst of joy as more than 100 trapped Chinese miners were pulled out alive today. A rescue spokesman said 115 survivors had been pulled out as of 4.30pm after being trapped for over a week in a flooded coal mine, where some ate sawdust and strapped themselves to the shafts' walls with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept. Rescued miners wrapped in blankets, some with their light-sensitive eyes covered but their feet bare, were hurried to ambulances that sped wailing to nearby hospitals. One clapped on his stretcher and reached out his blackened hands to grasp those of rescuers on either side. Rescuers in tears hugged each other at the scene, which was broadcast live on national television. The sudden surge in rescues was a rare piece of good news for China's mining industry, the deadliest in the world.

"A miracle has finally happened," Liu Dezheng, the rescue spokesman, said after the first nine miners were taken out shortly after midnight. "We believe that more miracles will happen." Of the 153 initially trapped, there were still 38 miners in the shaft. Rescuers expressed confidence they could be saved, but did not say whether there had been any contact with them. Over the weekend, China was on public holiday for the traditional "tomb sweeping" festival, when people pay respect to their ancestors . The spectacle of the rescue has captured nationwide interest. "As long as there's one per cent of hope, we will still make a 100 per cent effort," said Huang Yi, a spokesman for the national mine safety authority, according to Chinese television news. Thousands of family members awaiting news of their loved ones and other onlookers stood along the road, bursting into applause when the ambulances passed by.

Residents converged on a hospital treating survivors with gifts of milk and other food. Rescuers have been pumping water out of the flooded mine since last Sunday, when workers digging a tunnel broke into an old shaft filled with water. The first signs of life from underground came on Friday, when tapping could be heard coming up the pipes. Divers first headed into the tunnels over the weekend but found high, murky water and emerged empty-handed. As the water level continued to drop, rescuers with rubber rafts squeezed through the narrow, low-ceilinged passages late on Sunday and pulled out the first nine survivors just after midnight. Eleven hours later, the large wave of rescues began. The miners spent eight days underground and some were soaked through. Some had hung from shaft walls by their belts for days to avoid falling into the water when asleep. Later, they climbed into a mining cart that floated by. One miner described eating sawdust and tree bark and drinking the murky water, the leader of one of the rescue teams, Chen Yongsheng, said.

Liu Qiang, a medical officer involved in the rescue, said the survivors had hypothermia, severe dehydration and skin infections from being in the water so long. Some also were in shock and had low blood pressure. "This is probably one of the most amazing rescues in the history of mining anywhere," said David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government. Mr Chen said two or three of the underground mine platforms had not yet been checked for survivors. Conditions remained complicated by high, murky water. Families of the survivors were thrilled. "He called and managed to say my sister's nickname, 'Xiaomi,' so we know it's really him and that he's alive," said Long Liming, who said he received a call around midday from his rescued brother-in-law Fu Ziyang.

A doctor then took the phone and said Mr Fu had to rest, Mr Long said. "He was trapped underground for so long, so he's very weak. But we are very relieved to know that he made it out safely." Officials said most of the rescued miners were in a stable condition, but state television said seven were in a serious condition. In a sign of government concerns over possible social unrest, family members of the trapped miners said they have been kept under close watch in hotels and were not allowed to leave unless accompanied by minders. The first rescue early yesterday morning had seemed beyond hope for days before crews finally heard tapping from deep underground on Friday. Rescuers then scrambled to understand the complicated situation underground and send down packages of glucose, milk and letters of encouragement. One read: "Dear fellow workers, the Party Central Committee, the State Council and the whole nation have been concerned for your safety all the time.... You must have confidence and hold on to the last!"

Some workers appeared to be trapped on upper platforms of the mine; their access to the entrance of the V-shaped shaft was blocked by an area swamped with water. China's coal mines are the world's deadliest. 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 coal mine safety administration. "The situation underground was a bit more complicated than we predicted," Luo Lin, the director of the state work safety administration, said. For the hundreds of rescuers still at the scene, the focus shifted to the men still trapped in the flooded pit. "There is still hope for them, because there are some places that are still higher than the water level, but it's not clear if they are all still alive," said Mr Liu, the rescuers' spokesman. He and other rescuers pointed to a new danger - the build-up of toxic gases in parts of the shaft. "It's difficult down there," Lin Yonghong, 28, a rescuer, said. "The main danger is the toxic gas," he said, explaining that the concentration of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide had reached unsafe levels in certain spots. Liu Huawei, 29, his face covered in grimy soot, steeled himself to re-enter the massive mine pit - fuelled by his earlier success. * Associated Press, with additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse