Turkish town's tight-knit 'mining family' braced for the worst

AFP , Wednesday 14 May 2014

Rescue workers carry a rescued miner from the mine in Soma, western Turkey. (Photo:AP)

The wail of the siren was greeted by craning necks and expectant gazes but the ambulance zipped past and left no clue to the hundreds huddled in the dark, hoping for news of their loved ones.

Outside the hospital in the Turkish town of Soma, relatives waited through the night behind a double police cordon as the death toll of a blast at the nearby coal pit soared above 200 and bereaved the entire town.

Hundreds were still trapped Wednesday and a few were rescued alive but in the commotion of the massive rescue effort undertaken by the Turkish authorities, families struggled to get answers.

"I'm waiting," said Zulfer Yildirim, sinking back into her headscarf as the latest ambulance run yielded no fresh information and the flash of the beacon faded in the night.

"Gunduz left for work this morning as he always does. We heard at about 5:00 pm and now it's 3:00 am, still no news," she said.

Around her the crowd of mothers, sisters, wives, children and colleagues stood completely silent, transfixed in a mixture of dread and expectation.

A total of 787 workers are believed to have been trapped by the blast that went off early afternoon on Tuesday at the Soma Komur company's mine, in one of Turkey's worst industrial accidents.

Twelve hours after disaster struck, many relatives had no idea whether their loved ones were being treated in a hospital, lined up in a makeshift morgue or fighting for their lives a mile deep.

"I don't know where my uncle is," said Rabia Karakilic, struggling to contain her anguish.

"Look at how late it is. They still haven't found him," said the young woman. "We sometimes feel hope but it's really hard not to know where he is."

Suddenly, two hospital employees walked over to the families with a loudspeaker and began calling out names of miners treated in their department.

Two women broke rank from the crowd, tears of hope welling up in their eyes.

"We only deal with the least serious cases here," one doctor told AFP, declining to provide any figures. "Most of the patients are treated for asphyxia and respiratory problems."

A few miles away from Soma, a town about 150 miles of Istanbul in Turkey's Aegean region, an improvised morgue was set up for the miners who were pulled out dead.

This time the gloom in front of the hospital was disrupted by screams.

A stretcher carrying one of the relatives soon cut through the crowd, which promptly walled itself back in silence.

All said they would not leave without news on the fate of the missing miners.

"We're waiting for our uncle Kubilay," said Umut Demiroren. "We hope he'll make it, God willing, we're hoping for good news. We wish this on everybody, not just our family."

Anger was beginning to build up around the pit itself, with some miners challenging Soma Komur's assurances the company had complied with all safety norms and arguing their colleagues were killed by corporate greed.

But in front of the hospital, the families had no time for the politics of the accident and remained entirely focused on their agonising wait.

"It's the first time something like this has happened here," said Harun Unzar, a miner who came to enquire about the fate of his colleagues.

"We had lost one of our friends once but this is enormous... They say it's a transformer that exploded but we don't know if that's true."

"All the victims are our friends," he said, weeping. "We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it's very bad."

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