This is a report about one of the notoriously often coal mine disasters in China and about the rescue works. It´s long but really interesting.
A total of 115 workers had been miraculously retrieved from the flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine in north China's Shanxi Province by the afternoon of April 5, after being trapped underground for more than a week.
"It is a miracle in the history of Chinese mining rescues," said Luo Lin, Director of the State Administration of Work Safety, who stood waiting at the pit entrance. "The trapped miners displayed an unwavering determination to survive for eight days and eight nights."
"Scientific methods and technology used in the rescue have ensured that the miners were rescued alive," said Zhang Baoshun, Secretary of the Shanxi Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The Wangjialing Coal Mine straddles Xiangning County and Hejin City in Shanxi, a province famous for rich coal reserve and notorious for coal mine accident. The coal mine covers approximately 180 square km, and is affiliated with the state-owned Huajin Coking Coal Co. Ltd., as well as a major project approved by the National Development and Reform Commission.
At approximately 1:40 p.m. on March 28, underground water flooded into the mine after workers breached a disused shaft that had filled with groundwater, said local authorities.
A preliminary investigation showed that 261 workers were working in the pit when the flooding occurred. Of these workers, 108 were lifted safely to the surface at the start of the accident, leaving 153 workers trapped underground.
The investigation also found that the mine was still under construction and due to commence production five months ahead of schedule in October.
Fan Leisheng, one of the workers who escaped, described the sudden rush of water that tore through the mine.
"It looked like a tidal wave and I was terrified," Fan was quoted by the China Central Television (CCTV) as saying. "I immediately ran away and looked behind me to see some other workers still hanging behind. I shouted at them to get out. It was unbelievable that I managed to escape from underground."
Immediately following the accident, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered local authorities to spare no effort in saving the trapped miners, while also guarding against secondary accidents.
The rescue headquarters were set up in the late evening of the same day, and an emergency response plan was put into operation.
In the early morning of March 29, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang reached the site of the accident to oversee the search and rescue operation.
The water level had just stopped rising that morning, and the likelihood of survival for the trapped workers looked better, the rescue headquarters said.
On the evening of the same day, over 970 rescuers were still busy installing machines to pump water from more than 600 meters deep underground.
More than 10 pumps operating around the clock pumped up to 500 cubic meters of water per hour. Rescuers attempted to place huge pipes as long as 2,000 meter into the flood water to provide ventilation, CCTV reported.
"Pumping water out is the best way to save the trapped workers," said Sun Shouren, who was in charge of the mine's construction work.
But Liu Dezheng, a spokesman for the rescue headquarters, pointed out that complicated underground conditions could hamper the operation. "The coal mine has a high concentration of gas. Rescuers have to face the danger of toxic gas, while also fighting against the flood water."
For this reason, rescuers had started to drill a hole and open a drainage channel in the shaft to divert water from the flooded tunnel to another unaffected tunnel, he said.
As of the night of March 30, more than 1,000 rescuers from Shanxi and neighboring Henan Province were installing machines to pump out water from the underground shafts. Trucks carrying pumping machines from around the region lined the narrow mountain roads to the mine, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
On March 31, rescuers said that the trapped miners had been working on nine different platforms when the flooding occurred, and that four of the platforms had not been totally submerged, meaning that it was possible that some of the workers had survived.
"We believe that some workers might have a chance of survival. As long as there is a slim hope, we will make a 100-percent effort," Liu said at a news briefing that night.
On April 1, the water level continued to fall in the mine. By 6 p.m., it had dropped by 95 cm and a total of 44,200 cubic meters of water had been pumped from the shaft, Liu said at a daily news conference later that day.
A glimmer of hope appeared on April 2 when rescuers said that they heard banging on a metal pipe underground.
Pan Zengwu, Deputy Director of the Shanxi Provincial Bureau of Coal Geology, told Xinhua that rescuers heard what they believed to be the trapped miners making the noise at 2:15 p.m., and that the rescuers knocked on the drill pipe in response.
More than 360 bags containing 200 milliliter of glucose were sent down the 250-meter deep coal mine through the holes that had been drilled the day before to ensure that oxygen could reach the flooded pit, he said.
An iron wire was found attached to the end of a drill pipe when it was lifted to the surface at 3 p.m.
Rescuers tried again to make contact with the miners by shouting through the pipe and knocking on the pipe at approximately 6:02 p.m. and 6:10 p.m. after they sent more bags of glucose into the pit.
Following a period of silence, several tapping sounds on the pipe emerged from underground.
Holding on to life again
At 1 p.m. on April 3, a team of 13 rescuers, including six divers, was sent into the mine to explore the flooded shaft, in preparation for a large-scale operation, Liu said.
The divers were carrying underwater cameras to film conditions in the shaft.
However, the rescue team stated that the situation underground was "very complicated" and the water was "murky and deep" when they returned to the surface.
"Under normal conditions, we can work for two hours underwater, but in such a complicated situation with poor water conditions, we can only work for an hour," a diver told Xinhua.
Just when people were despondent due to this news, rescuers said that they saw moving lamp lights in the mine on the night of April 4, indicating signs of life from the 153 trapped miners.
Hao Xiqing, a member of the rescue team, was the first to spot the lights.
His team had descended the shaft at 4 p.m. that day, with the objective of monitoring gas and observing the water level in the flooded cavern. At 10:27 p.m., while Hao was sitting on a pipe used to pump water from the tunnel, he raised his head and suddenly noticed the reflection of a light swaying on the surface of the water some distance away.
He immediately ran to a phone 50 meters away and reported to the rescue headquarters. Several minutes later, 10 teams of more than 100 rescue workers were sent down to his location.
Just after midnight, the first nine survivors were pulled safely from the mine.
At approximately noon on April 5, rescuers emerged with the second batch of the 106 survivors.
The survivors were then carefully brought to waiting ambulances and rushed to nearby hospitals for medical check-ups and treatment.
According to China News Service reports, the survivors were weak but lucid, and able to speak in spite of their ordeal, identifying themselves to doctors.
"After such a long time in the water, many of the survivors had partially ulcerated skin and some had paraphasia," a doctor was quoted as saying.
Liu Qiang, a medical expert involved in the rescue, said that after being trapped for more than 179 hours, the survivors were very weak and suffered from malnutrition.
The workers survived underground by subsisting on sawdust, tree bark and turbid water, said Chen Yongsheng, one of the rescue team leaders, to CCTV.
Some miners attached themselves using their belts to the wall of the mine, in order to avoid falling into the water while sleeping, and hung there for three days before climbing into a mining cart that floated by, CCTV reported.
Wang Renfang, a survivor of flooded Wangjialing Coal Mine, cried when he had a phone call with his wife at a hospital on April 8. In the meantime, many family members and relatives were waiting outside the hospitals before meeting their sweethearts.
"I can't wait to go into the hospital to visit my husband," said Sun Huan, wife of a miner called Li Guoyu, holding her year-old son. She said she had two boys, and her husband was the only breadwinner in the family.
To assist with their treatment, medical experts, including psychological consultants, were sent to the mine by the Ministry of Health (MOH).
Xinhua reported that on April 6, 60 of the rescued workers, whose injuries were worse than others but not life-threatening, were sent to hospitals in Taiyuan, capital city of Shanxi. Each of these 60 rescued workers was provided with a personal doctor, a nurse, a psychiatrist and a volunteer assistant.
Just after the 115 miners were pulled safely from the flooded mine, rescuers found the bodies of five workers inside the mine on the night of April 5.
The death toll rose to six on the afternoon of April 6, according to Shanxi Governor Wang Jun. And another body was found on the early morning of April 7.
At approximately 11 a.m., the rescue headquarters reported that the exact location of the remaining miners still trapped in the mine had been ascertained by the rescuers.
The rescue operation had now entered its most challenging phase, said Liu Dezheng.
CCTV reported that a highly-explosive gas had accumulated in the pit, and that in addition to the threat of a gas explosion, rescue workers still faced the difficulty of pumping out water that prevented access to the lowest part of the shaft.
According to Liu, the rescue headquarters were adjusting plans to overcome these new challenges in the rescue effort.
Accountability Procedure Launched
On April 5, an accountability procedure was launched. According to spokesman Liu Dezheng, the rescue headquarters have required that the mine's owner prepare for an imminent inquiry into the flooding accident that left the miners trapped.
Luo Lin, Director of the State Administration of Work Safety, said earlier that ignoring warnings that water was seeping into the coal shaft and slow evacuation procedures had led to the accident.
Jiang Shijie, a manager of the Wangjialing Coal Mine project, said workers building the mine had warned supervisors about water seepage on two occasions late on the morning of March 28, approximately two hours before the flooding occurred.
Jiang received an emergency phone call at about 1:40 p.m. informing him that water was pouring into the shaft. He attempted to contact miners underground to raise the alarm, but was unable to reach them.
An evacuation should have been ordered immediately after managers received reports of water leakage, said Luo. Managers should have evacuated workers from the mine, cut power and suspended work immediately.
According to a statement by the State Administration of Work Safety, a preliminary investigation found that the project's management had failed to detect underground water and distribute information, resulting in workers breaking through to an adjacent abandoned shaft that was full of water.
Timeline of Key Events
March 28 Underground water floods the pit of Wangjialing Coal Mine at approximately 1:40 p.m., and 108 workers escape while 153 others remain trapped in the shaft.
March 29 Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang arrives at the scene of the accident to oversee the search and rescue operation. Water stops rising in the flooded mine.
March 30 The water level drops by 15 cm, and a total of 15,000 cubic meters of water is pumped out of the pit by 6 p.m.
March 31 Rescuers state that some of the 153 workers may still be alive.
April 1 The water level underground drops by 95 cm and a total of 44,200 cubic meters of water is pumped from the shaft by 6 p.m. Rescuers drill a vertical hole into the mine, ensuring that oxygen can reach the flooded pit.
April 2 Rescuers hear the sound of knocking on metal pipes, and an iron wire is found attached at the end of a drill pipe when it is lifted to the surface at 3 p.m., indicating signs of life.
April 3 Thirteen rescuers enter the flooded mine to search for the trapped workers, but the situation underground remains "very complicated."
April 4 The total amount of water pumped out of the mine reaches 140,000 cubic meters by the afternoon, paving the way for the rescue operation.
At approximately 10 p.m., swaying lamp lights are seen on the other side of the V-shaped mine shaft. Rescuers enter the coal mine at approximately 11 p.m.
April 5 The first group of nine survivors are removed from the mine safely in the early morning. By the afternoon, a total of 115 miners have been lifted to safety. Five bodies are discovered by rescuers in the evening.
April 6 Another body is found at approximately 5 p.m.
April 7 The death toll reaches seven by the morning.
At approximately 7 p.m., two more bodies are found by rescuers.
April 8 The death toll rises to 20 as of 8:20 p.m. while 18 miners are still unfound
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