HONG KONG—The bosses of a state-owned coal mine in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang were to blame for a recent underground gas explosion in which more than 100 people died, an initial investigation has revealed.
The accident started in the early hours of Saturday at the Xinxing Coal Mine with a gas leak in one of the shafts, safety investigators said Monday.
But poor ventilation of a vast and intricate network of tunnels caused gas to pour into the main tunnel of the mine, which is owned by a Hegang-based subsidiary of the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group.
This triggered an explosion that shook 28 of the 30 mining platforms in operation, work safety chief Luo Lin told reporters in Beijing.
"The mine's safety responsibility system did not work, they were not checking earnestly enough for hidden dangers," Luo, who is head of the State Administration for Work Safety (SAWS), told state television.
"This accident was clearly linked to a lack of responsibility."
'A great tragedy'
Of the 528 miners working in the pit when the first gas warning device beeped, four were still missing Monday, when the death toll was reported at 104.
An employee who answered the phone at the Hegang Municipal Xingshan People's Hospital said they weren't allowed to answer questions about victims of the blast.
"Yes [some of my family members were miners in that mine]," he said.
"Of course it's a great tragedy. I don't need to tell you that. My family is all right. But that makes no difference. We are all from Hegang. We all feel terrible about this."
The Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin has pointed to collusion between government and business a key factor in the sharp spike in coal mine accidents in the early 2000s.
"In both state-owned and privately owned coal mines, mine workers have no right or opportunity to stand up for or defend their personal interests with regard to work safety, wages and benefits, working hours etc," wrote CLB founder Han Dongfang in a recent editorial.
"Employers in both state-owned and privately operated coal mines tend to view mine workers as little more than 'mining tools that breathe,'" Han wrote.
Meanwhile, Li Qiang, executive director of the New York-based NGO China Labor Watch, agreed that the problem existed nationwide.
"China hasn't been clamping down [on safety violators] on a system-wide basis," Li said.
"The crucial thing is that a lot of people are making an awful lot of money out of this, and there are vested interests involved."
U.S.-based Chinese historian Shi Dong said there were many reasons why the Chinese government had failed to make mine safety a top priority.
"This isn't just a one-off event. This sort of thing happens every year," Shi said.
"That's because the government is simply indulging in a little window-dressing and they aren't taking care of the lives of ordinary people. I think that this is the wrong line to take."
"Every year this happens, and the [leaders] make it look good. They go on TV to show how much they care. But none of it does any good."
Rescue efforts continue
Relatives of victims were calling for clear answers from the authorities as rescuers recovered 12 more bodies on Monday.
Efforts continued to reach the missing miners with rescuers braving toxic gases in a desperate search of the mine in the city of Hegang, said mine spokesman Zhang Jinguang.
In Hegang city, police cordoned off groups of protesters, preventing journalists from reaching them, while groups of weeping women gathered around the mine company offices.
The accident has renewed concern over safety in China's notorious coal industry.
In December 2007, a gas explosion killed 105 miners in Shanxi province.
Coal currently meets around 70 percent of the country's energy requirements.
Official figures show that more than 3,200 workers died in coal mines last year.
But independent labor groups say the true figures are far higher.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.