ISTANBUL — An explosion on Tuesday in a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least 151 miners and left more than 200 others trapped underground, Turkey's energy minister said early today.
The official, Taner Yildiz, said many, and perhaps most, of the miners had died of smoke inhalation. "We're dealing with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide poisoning," Yildiz said on television. Rescue efforts were continuing but "time is against us," he added.
The explosion set off a fire that blocked exits from the mine, Cenguz Ergun, the mayor of the town of Manisa, said in a telephone interview with CNN Turk news television. The accident took place in Soma Township, a part of Manisa, which has some of the world's largest coal reserves.
It occurred as workers were changing shifts in midafternoon, which made it more difficult for officials to determine how many miners were trapped inside the mine. As many as 400 people could be trapped as much as 2,000 feet below the surface, several local officials said.
A total of 787 miners were registered at site, in two shifts, and Yildiz said 363 of them had been rescued.
The fire broke out at 3:10 p.m. local time about 500 feet underground, Yildiz said. Sixty rescue teams, with more than 400 members, worked through the night and into the early morning. At least 76 miners were located and removed successfully from the mine, Ergun said.
"It is very saddening," he said.
Television news broadcasts showed people clapping and greeting men in white hard hats, who looked exhausted as they were being escorted to ambulances, some on stretchers. Large crowds of families and friends clustered around the Manisa State Hospital, where the injured miners were taken.
Footage from underground security cameras that were broadcast on television showed rescuers locating miners and leading them to safety.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised statement that rescue teams organized both by the country's disaster and emergency management agency and the coal mine itself were working hard to save the rest of the trapped miners.
"God willing, we hope to receive more accurate information and news to cool our hearts," he said.
The mine's air circulation system was reversed to deliver fresh air to underground areas away from fire. Early this morning there were conflicting reports about whether the fire had been brought under control.
"Rescue teams are highly experienced and know what they are doing," Yildiz said. "Primarily, it was important to deliver fresh air to underground areas, and, thank God, the air circulation system has been reversed to transfer fresh air to places where there is no fire."
Although many people questioned safety conditions at the coal mine, the Labor Ministry issued a statement late Tuesday that said the complex had been regularly inspected and was in compliance with occupational health and safety regulations.