- (Photo: REUTERS/Ihlas/Yilmaz Saripinar)
At least 232 people are dead following a major explosion at a coal mine in western Turkey, with close to 200 people reportedly trapped by fire two-thirds of a mile underground.
"We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey," Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said at the scene in Soma, which is 298 miles southwest of Istanbul, Reuters reported.
According to CNN, the explosion was caused by a transformer which blew up on Tuesday, creating a fire that was still raging on Wednesday, preventing rescue workers from reaching the miners trapped deep underground.
Workers are pumping oxygen into the mine to try and keep those trapped by the fire alive, as many of those confirmed dead had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning.
Yildiz revealed that the incident occurred during a shift change, making it uncertain just how many miners are still trapped underground. There were reportedly 787 workers in total in the mine at the time of the explosion, and fears are that the death toll will continue rising.
"I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts," Yildiz said.
While Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has declared three days of national mourning, a number of reports have pointed to the country's poor working conditions that make such tragedies possible.
Left-wing opposition newspaper vendors in Istanbul have allegedly read aloud headlines such as "Turkey is a graveyard for workers" and "This wasn't an accident, this was negligence" to commuters.
Turkey has had a poor safety record for coal mining for decades, and a previous gas blast in 1992 left 263 people dead in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.
The International Labor Organization ranked Turkey the third worst nation in the world for worker deaths in 2012.
Hursit Gunes from the main opposition Republican People's Party revealed that a previous request for an 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 said.
BBC News Science Editor David Shukman highlighted that many obstacles stand in the way of efforts to reach further survivors in Soma.
"Most seriously, the explosion cut the power supply and put the lifts out of action. Lighting would have gone off, plunging the tunnels into darkness and stopping the ventilation system. They're pumping in air, but will it be enough to stop a rapid drop in oxygen? Freshly exposed coal sucks in oxygen so new supplies are vital," Shukman said.
"The lack of ventilation also means levels of potentially toxic carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide have been rising. And all the time smoke would have rapidly built up after the explosion, cutting visibility, making access far harder, and sadly reducing the chances of getting people out alive."