By Ece Toksabay
SOMA, Turkey (Reuters) - Hopes faded of finding more survivors in a coal mine in western Turkey on Wednesday, where 245 workers were confirmed killed and around 120 still feared to be trapped in what is likely to prove the nation's worst ever industrial disaster.
Anger over the deadly fire at the mine about 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul echoed across a country that has seen a decade of rapid economic growth but still suffers from one of the world's worst workplace safety records.
Opponents blamed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government for privatizing the country's mines and ignoring repeated warnings about their safety.
"We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain," Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site. But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine.
"Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world," he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.
Fire knocked out power and shut down ventilation shafts and elevators shortly after 3 pm (1200 GMT) on Tuesday. Emergency workers pumped oxygen into the mine to try to keep those trapped alive during a rescue effort that lasted through the night. Thousands of family members and co-workers gathered outside the town's hospital searching for information on their loved ones.
"We haven't heard anything from any of them, not among the injured, not among the list of dead," said one elderly woman, Sengul, whose two nephews worked in the mine along with the sons of two of her neighbors.
"It's what people do here, risking their lives for two cents ... They say one gallery in the mine has not been reached, but it's almost been a day," she said.
A mechanical digger opened a row of fresh graves at Soma's main cemetery. An imam presided over the funeral of six miners as a few hundred mourners wept in silence.
The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the death toll as of 1600 GMT was 245. Late on Tuesday he said 787 workers had been in the mine.
The mine operator Soma Komur Isletmeleri said nearly 450 miners had been rescued from the site and that the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide. It said the cause was not yet clear.
Initial reports suggested an electrical fault caused the blaze but Mehmet Torun, a board member and former head of the Chamber of Mining Engineers who was at the scene, said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine's tunnels and galleries.
"They are ventilating the shafts but carbon monoxide kills in 3 or 5 minutes," he told Reuters by telephone.
"Unless we have a major miracle, we shouldn't expect anyone to emerge alive at this point," he said, pointing to an outside chance that workers may have found air pockets to survive.
The disaster highlighted Turkey's poor record on worker safety and drew renewed opposition calls for an inquiry into a drop in safety standards at previously state-run mines. The International Labor Organization ranked the EU candidate nation third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.
In Istanbul, police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse several thousand demonstrators, some wearing miners' hard hats and headlamps, some waving left-wing party flags.
"Government resign," the protesters chanted as they marched along the city's Istiklal Avenue before the police intervened, sending them scattering into side streets. Police also clashed with protesters in the capital Ankara and there were protests in other cities.
Erdogan earlier declared three days of national mourning and cancelled an official visit to Albania. President Abdullah Gul also cancelled a trip to China scheduled for Thursday in order to travel to Soma.
"We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey," Yildiz told reporters, adding that "hopes were dimming" of finding many more survivors.
A pall of smoke hung above the area and Yildiz said the fire was still burning underground, hampering the rescue operation.
Turkey's disaster management agency AFAD said in an email 85 people had been treated for their injuries.
Freezer trucks and a cold storage warehouse usually used for food served as makeshift morgues as hospital facilities overflowed. Medical staff intermittently emerged from the hospital to read the names of survivors being treated inside, with families and fellow workers clamoring for information.
"This isn't a huge city. Everyone has neighbors, relatives or friends injured, dead or still trapped. I am trying to prepare my family for the worst," said Hasan Dogan, 27, watching TV news reports from a canteen set up outside the hospital.
Some 16,000 people from a population of 105,000 in the district of Soma work in the mining industry, according to Erkan Akcay, a local opposition politician. The district is no stranger to tragedies, but never before on this scale.
The words "For those who give a life for a handful of coal" are engraved on the entrance wall to the emergency clinic.
Teams of psychiatrists were being pulled together to help counsel the families of victims. Paramilitary police guarded the entrance to the mine to keep distressed relatives at a safe distance, as residents offered soup, water and bread.
"They haven't brought any ambulances in such a long time that we've started to lose hope," said Hatice Ersoy, 43, a woman in a headscarf sitting on a pavement outside the hospital.
Several hundred people chanted "Government resign!" at Soma's local government building as Erdogan visited the town.
Earlier some 200 people protested in front of the Istanbul headquarters of the operator Soma Komur. The company said in a brief statement late on Tuesday there had been "a grave accident" caused by an explosion in a substation.
Turkey's rapid growth over the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy demand, with worker safety standards often failing to keep pace. It is a net importer of coal.
Its safety record in coal mining has been poor for decades, with its deadliest accident to date in 1992, when a gas blast killed 263 workers in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.
The Labor Ministry said late on Tuesday its officials had carried out regular inspections at the Soma mine, most recently in March, and that no irregularities had been detected.
But Hursit Gunes, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People's Party, said a previous request for a parliamentary inquiry into safety and working conditions at mines around Soma had been rejected by the ruling AK Party.
"I'm going to renew that parliamentary investigation demand today. If (the government) has been warned about this and they did nothing, then people will be angry, naturally. The opposition warned them. But there's unbelievable lethargy on this issue," Gunes told Reuters.
The ILO in 2012 said Turkey had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world's third-highest. In the mining sector, 61 people died in 2012, according to the ILO's latest statistics. Between 2002 and 2012, the death toll at Turkish mines totaled more than 1,000.
(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen in Soma; Humeyra Pamuk, Ayla Jean Yackley, Daren Butler, Dasha Afanasieva and Evrim Ergin in Istanbul; Gulsen Solaker and Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff)