The first sign of trouble was a stream of water that burst from a wall deep in the mine, Wang Kuitao recalled. Within minutes, he said, the water was everywhere, rushing down the shaft carrying tons of mud. Another disaster was on the way, Wang quickly concluded, one more in the cruel rhythm of China's deadly coal fields.
"I said to myself, 'Something terrible has happened,' " Wang recounted later to a group of Chinese reporters.
Wang, 42, escaped the flooded mine with a half-dozen comrades, sloshing through water up to his chest and climbing for five hours through ventilation shafts. In all, 584 miners made their way to safety following the disaster last Friday. But 172 others, including Wang's 39-year-old brother, have not made it out.
Coal mining communities around the world routinely confront the dangers inherent in the industry. In Utah, six miners remain trapped deep inside a coal mine more than two weeks after it caved in, their families desperately hoping for a miracle.
Here in China, however, the pain and suffering of mining communities are not only acute but widespread. More than 4,700 miners were killed last year and more than 2,000 have been killed this year, making China's coal mines the deadliest in the world. In the United States, 47 coal miners died on the job in 2006.
With each disaster here, an anger has flared among miners and their families, flowing from a sentiment that they have been left to cope for themselves -- to endure their 14-hour days underground, to get by on paltry salaries and, from time to time, to lose their loved ones in accidents that everyone laments but no one seems to stop.
The disaster that has consumed this coal town about 300 miles southeast of Beijing has taken its place as one of the worst in recent history, surpassed only by an underground gas explosion two years ago that killed 214 people. As the pumps churn on here at the Zhangzhuang mine -- trying to empty the 12 million cubic meters of water and 300,000 cubic meters of mud and coal that rushed in -- families have begun to ask why China's toll cannot be reduced.
The corporation that operates the mine, Huayuan Co., backed by the State Work Safety Administration, attributed last week's flooding to torrential rains that caused a levee of the Chaiwen River to collapse, suddenly releasing pent-up water and allowing it to rush into the mine. The weather forecast provided no warning that the rains would be so heavy, said a company executive who identified himself only as Wang.
For many miners and their relatives here, however, the explanation amounted to an attempt to shirk responsibility, making the culprit a quirk of nature. It rains every summer at this time, they pointed out. Compensation will have to be paid to victims' families, they know, and the company's degree of responsibility will help determine how much money it will have to put up in addition to government funds.
"This accident was not a natural disaster at all," said Qin Limei, who works at the mine and whose husband and brother were among the presumed victims. "It was a man-made disaster. The weather bureau said we were going to have a lot of rain. Two other mines in the area closed, but not ours."
Mining families in Xintai's little neighborhood of Dong Du Jing said their workers leave for the nearby mine head at 3 a.m. and return home only after 5 p.m., covered in black grime. Days off are rare, they complained, and the underground work is hot, dirty and dangerous. With independent labor unions banned by the Communist Party, they have found no way to deal with the mining companies except to obey.
"I really feel we are slaves," said Chen Fuzhu, a miner who escaped the Zhangzhuang flooding because he was assigned to the night shift but whose brother and brother-in-law were among the victims.
The government and its safety agencies have failed to protect them adequately, miners said, because the lure of profits in China's booming coal industry has created a nexus of officialdom and businessmen eager to cash in and willing to cut corners.
"They say it's a natural disaster. Ha!" said a retired miner wearing shorts and a tank-top undershirt in the sticky summer heat. "It's those corrupt guys who run things. Don't bother to attack China," he added to a reporter who had just identified himself as American. "The Communist Party is so corrupt the country is going to collapse all by itself."
A half-dozen family members, outraged at what they said was inadequate information on their loved ones trapped in the mine, burst into the mining company offices Monday and smashed display cases. As a result, police were stationed outside the mine complex and the government assigned personnel to inform and comfort the waiting families.
"Every family wants to protest," Chen said. "But there are two rows of policemen standing in front of the mine."
The assignment of monitors, including psychologists in some cases, was designed to overcome complaints that the families were being ignored as rescue work went on. It also served to isolate upset relatives from reporters who were relaying their complaints. Family members said they were under strict orders not to talk about the tragedy, even among themselves.
"The families are desperate," Qin said.
Reflecting the tension, the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Bureau ordered newspapers to confine their coverage to dispatches from the official New China News Agency. A large number of reporters showed up in Xintai anyway, and some publications stretched the limits of the ban. But the censors' orders kept the tragedy from becoming a sensation elsewhere in the country, blunting its political impact despite the high number of victims.
For the past several years, the State Work Safety Administration repeatedly has announced enforcement crackdowns and vowed to improve its record. Hundreds of small mines have been shut down for operating outside safety regulations -- but many have reopened.
The industry, which employs an estimated 3 million people, has expanded rapidly in recent years as China's economy grows at about 10 percent a year. About 70 percent of the country's energy comes from coal -- 2.3 billion tons were mined last year, up 8 percent from 2005. Nearly 30,000 mines have gone into operation around the country, some of them fly-by-night operations with unsafe practices tolerated by paid-off officials.
Huayuan's mine, however, was a relatively large-scale operation, one of several dozen in this flat, sprawling town whose most visible features are giant slag heaps. Production was 750,000 tons last year, the New China News Agency said, and the mine executive, Wang, said 6,000 people were on the payroll.
Miners complained that Huayuan executives had a reputation for pushing hard to raise production, restricting days off to two per month. "Even when there's a wedding, they make people work," said Liu Wenkai, 72, who retired after 40 years underground.
Several went a step further, suggesting that mine executives played down the danger of flooding last Friday because of concern over production schedules. "If the miners had been warned in time, they would not have died," Chen said.
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