Emergency crews are battling fierce flames and methane gas to rescue up to 150 coal miners after an underground mine fire killed more than 200 others in what is fast becoming one of Turkey’s worst mining disasters. An underground power center malfunction ignited the blaze 420 m down, said authorities; most deaths are believed to be carbon monoxide-related.

Addressing reporters at the project called the Soma mine, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 245 have perished since the fire erupted at 3 p.m. local time, May 13. Authorities added that 363 miners have been rescued, while between 125 and 150 others remain trapped. Owned by Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS, a subsidiary of the Soma Group, the asset lies 298 miles southwest of Istanbul.

Given the fire intensity, “our hopes are fading,” said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz who is overseeing 400 rescuers. The blast occurred during a shift change, leaving 787 miners inside, increasing casualties, said officials; shaft elevators were also useless. Other miners on other levels, however, are trickling out on their own.

In an email message quoted by Bloomberg, officials at the Soma Group said the incident took place despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls” and that an investigation is under way; protests have taken place outside company headquarters in Istanbul.

Although mining accidents are frequent in Turkey, with more than 100 deaths reported since 2003, this incident is approaching the single “highest loss of life,” Yildiz told NTV television; Turkey’s worst mining accident occurred in 1992 when 263 died in a methane explosion at a project near the northwest Black Sea port of Zonguldak, which Soma has run since 2011.

Rescuers may cease operations Thursday if they successfully extinguish the fire, Ali Gul, the chief firefighter of the nearby town of Manisa, said as quoted by NTV.

Through the night, television depicted onlookers cheering as freed workers emerged, while authorities with megaphones announced the names of the injured with details. Police officers cordoned off nearby Soma state hospital to keep grief-stricken crowds, desperate for news of their loved ones, from overrunning the facility.

Earlier yesterday, Soma’s website called itself Turkey’s largest underground coal producer — producing 5.5 million tons per year — and that its Soma mine produces 250,000 tons per month (tpm), mostly supplied to a local power plant. Since then, however, the site has been taken down and replaced with a single message expressing condolences.

In a Q3 2012 interview with a Turkish newspaper, Alp Gurkan, the owner of Soma Holding, said his company had low operating costs, and outperformed estimates by state-run Turkiye Komur Isletmeleri, or TKI from which it purchased the asset in 1984. TKI had estimated Soma would cost $130-140 a ton to mine, while Gurkan’s company committed to $23.80 per ton, including a 15% royalty fee paid to TKI.

Labor Ministry officials, quoted by state-run news agency Anadolu, said the mine has been subject to five inspections since 2012 and, as of last month, no safety violations were reported. However, “if there is negligence, we won’t remain indifferent,” Energy Minister Yildiz said.

Lawmakers from Turkey’s lead opposition group, the Republican People’s Party, however, said President Erdogan’s ruling party voted down a proposal on April 29 for a formal inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at mines around Soma.

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