SOMA, Turkey — Since first light at a coal mine in western Turkey today, rescue workers have been removing a steady stream of bodies after an underground explosion and fire killed at least 232 workers.
The fate of almost 200 other miners remained unclear.
But the slow pace of the rescue workers emerging from the mine with stretchers indicates hopes are dimming. The bodies were covered in blankets and their faces were blackened like the coal.
Other rescue workers, mostly miners lucky enough to have been on a different shift or working in other mines, have also trickled out on their own. Though they are also streaked with soot, their faces are lighter because they can still sweat and use their hands.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, around 155 miles south of Istanbul, at the time of the explosion and more than 350 of them had been rescued so far.
[PHOTO: Rescue workers carry a rescued miner from the mine in Soma, western Turkey, early Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 205 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma, some 155 miles south of Istanbul, at the time of the accident and 363 of them had been rescued so far. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)]
“Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz said.
In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company that owns the mine, Soma Holding.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. A gas explosion in 1992 killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
As bodies were brought out on stretchers, rescue workers pulled blankets back from the faces of the dead to give jostling crowds of anxious family members a chance to identify victims. One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognized one of the dead, and police restrained him from climbing into an ambulance.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half-staff. Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania and planned to visit Soma instead.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a statement to express condolences, saying “we are following the mining disaster in Soma with great sadness.”
The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside the mine than usual.
The minister said the fire was still blazing inside the mine, 18 hours after the blast. The air around the mine swirled with smoke and soot. The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, Yildiz said.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.
Yildiz said earlier that some of the workers were 460 yards deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers could not use elevators to escape because the explosion had cut off power.
Workers from nearby mines were brought in to join the rescue operation. One 30-year-old man, who declined to give his name, said he rushed to the scene to try to help find his brother who was still missing early today. He said he was able to make it about 500 feet inside before gasses forced him to retreat.
“There is no hope,” he said with tears in his eyes.