SAVASTEPE, TURKEY // Erdal Bicak believes he knows why so many of his colleagues died in Turkey’s worst mining disaster: company negligence.
And he knows one other thing – he is never going back down any mine again.
Mr Bicak, 24, had just ended his shift on Tuesday and was making his way to the surface when managers ordered him back underground because of a problem in the Soma coal mine in western Turkey.
“The company is guilty,” said Mr Bicak, adding that managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. “The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn’t tell us in time.”
The miner also said government safety inspectors never visited the lower reaches of the Soma mine and had no idea of how bad conditions get as workers trudge deeper underground.
The final death toll from the accident reached 301 on Saturday as the government declared the rescue operation had ended after recovering the bodies of the last two miners trapped underground.
Mr Bicak, whose leg was badly injured and in a cast, recounted his miraculous escape at a candle-lit vigil on Friday for the Soma mine victims in the town square of nearby Savastepe.
Public anger has surged in the wake of the mine inferno. Police used tear gas and water cannon on Friday to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Soma who were demanding that the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government resign. In Istanbul, police broke up a crowd who lit candles to honor the Soma victims.
Mr Bicak said he had gone about a kilometre underground with 150 people on Tuesday afternoon when he heard an explosion. He said they were given old oxygen masks that he thought had not been checked in many years.
Mr Bicak and a close friend tried to make it to an exit, but there was a lot of smoke. The path was very narrow and steep, with ceilings so low that the miners could not stand up, making it difficult to leave quickly. He and his friend took turns slapping each other to stay conscious.
“I told my friend ‘I can’t go on. Leave me here. I’m going to die’,” Mr Bicak said. But his friend said to him: “No, we’re getting out of here.”
Mr Bicak eventually made it out of the mine with his friend – by then lapsing in and out of consciousness. He said he lost many friends and out of the 150 miners he was working with, only 15 survived.
Thick smoke from the underground fire killed many miners who had no gas masks, according to Akin Celik, the Soma mine’s operations manager.
The Milliyet newspaper reported on Saturday that a preliminary report by a mine safety expert who went into the mine suggested smouldering coal caused the mine’s roof to collapse. The report said the tunnel’s support beams were made of wood, not metal, and there were not enough carbon monoxide sensors.
Turkey’s labour minister, Faruk Celik, said investigations had been launched by both prosecutors and the company but “there is no report that has emerged yet”.
Government and mining officials insisted on Friday that the disaster was not due to negligence.
“There’s no negligence with respect to this incident,” said Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party. He said the mine in Soma “was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009”.
The mine’s operations manager echoed those words.
“There’s no negligence with respect to this incident. We all worked with all our heart and soul. I have not seen anything like this in 20 years,” he told reporters.
Mr Bicak said the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months ago. He said mine managers know that government inspectors only visit the top 100 metres of the mine, so they just clean up that part and the inspectors never see the narrow, steep, cramped sections below.
Mine owners are tipped off up to a week before an inspection, said Ozgur Ozel, an opposition legislator from the Soma region who has criticised the government for not adopting the International Labor Organisation’s convention on mine safety.
Mr Bicak, who is still trying to come to grips with the deaths of so many colleagues, says he knows now that his mining career is over.
“I’m not going to be a miner anymore. God gave me a chance and now I’m done,” he said.
* Associated Press