SOMA, Turkey (CNN) — A sullen throng maintained a vigil outside a coal mine in Soma, Turkey, on Wednesday as hopes flagged for finding survivors inside the burning complex of tunnels.
“It’s too late. There’s no more hope,” said miner Veysel Sengul, who had already lost four friends and was waiting by the mine entrance for more.
A power transformer blew up during shift change Tuesday, sparking a choking fire deep inside the mine.
Rescuers saved at least 88 miners, but 245 were known dead, according to Turkey’s Natural Disaster and Emergency Coordination Directorate. Those already autopsied died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said as many as 120 more were trapped inside the mine, but that was before rescue crews grimly hurried a series of stretchers — at least some clearly carrying corpses — past the waiting crowd.
Efforts to rescue any survivors were complicated by the fire. Rescue volunteer Mustafa Gursoy told the CNN team at the mine that conditions inside the mine are abominable — hot, smoky and filled with carbon dioxide.
But he said rescuers aren’t ready to give up hope.
Some miners, he said, could have reached emergency chambers stocked with gas masks and air.
“If they could reach those emergency rooms and reach their gas masks and close the doors and protect those emergency areas from the poison gas, then they could survive,” Gursoy told the CNN team at the mine. “It’s possible. We are ready for anything.”
But Yildiz, speaking earlier, said “hopes are diminishing” of rescuing anyone yet inside the mine.
Speaking to reporters after visiting with rescuers, Erdogan offered his condolences to the families of those who died and said there’s “a sadness shared by the whole population of our country.”
“God will offer urgent remedy and care” to those who were injured, he said.
Smoke rose from openings in the ground Wednesday as helicopters buzzed overhead. Flags flew at half-staff. Police and rescue workers were everywhere, but there was precious little for them to do.
The trauma from what may be the worst mine disaster in Turkish history has left Soma and the rest of Turkey in shock. A mining accident in the 1990s took 260 lives. This one has the potential to top it.
Erdogan warned politicians not to use the disaster as a political platform, even as Erdogan’s political opponents awaited him in Soma with accusations about the tragedy.
Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region had filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.
In some incidents three people died, in others, five, said opposition spokesman Aykut Erdogdu. And Ozel wanted to get to the bottom of the deaths.
Several dozen members of opposition parties signed on to his proposal, but the conservative government overturned it. And some of its members publicly lampooned it, he said.
Erdogan questioned Ozel’s version, and said the mine had passed safety inspections as recently as March.
The mine, owned by SOMA Komur isletmeleri A.S., underwent regular inspections in the last three years, two of them this March, Turkey’s government said. Inspectors reported no violation of health and safety laws.
Opposition members have scoffed at the validity of those inspections.
The company has taken down its regular website and replaced it with a single Web page in all black containing a message of condolence.
Erdogan canceled a trip to Albania to tour the rescue effort and speak to relatives of dead and injured miners. He declared three days of national mourning.
For Sengul, the miner waiting by the tunnel entrance for more of his friends to emerge, the mourning may go on much longer.
After what’s happened, he said, he’ll never work in a mine again.