ISTANBUL - The death toll in a coal mine disaster in western Turkey increased to 274, with 80 more injured, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday after visiting the mine in Soma, southwest of Istanbul.
Erdogan also told reporters Wednesday that 120 workers are believed to remain trapped in what could be Turkey's worst ever industrial disaster.
Postponing a trip to Albania, Erdogan instead travelled to Soma district of Manisa, site of the disaster and home to some 16,000 miners, where he met with authorities handling rescue operations and grieving family members.
According to some reports, relatives and friends of the missing continue to await updates outside the stricken mine, but hope is fading for up to 200 miners still trapped inside.
At the mine, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz says although oxygen is being pumped into the mine, which is more than a kilometer deep, rescue efforts have been repeatedly suspended due to high levels of carbon monoxide.
Soma Komur Isletmeleri, that company that operates the mine, says nearly 450 miners were rescued and that most of the deaths are believed to have been caused by suffocation. One miner involved in the rescue efforts says there is little hope left of finding more survivors
"Rescuers cannot enter the mine anymore," he said. "I heard that at least three miners who went in to rescue others have died."
A cold storage warehouse, usually used for food and freezer trucks, served as makeshift morgues as hospital facilities overflowed. Medical staff intermittently emerged from the hospital to read the names of survivors being treated inside, with families and fellow workers clamoring for information.
Teams of psychiatrists were being pulled together to help counsel the families of victims. Paramilitary police guarded the entrance to the mine to keep distressed relatives at a safe distance from the rescue effort.
Authorities say the collapse was caused by an electrical fault that ignited an explosion and fire, which is still believed to be burning in some parts of the mine.
Relatives have voiced anger over a lack of information as the government is under increasing pressure for recently refusing parliamentary opposition calls to investigate the owners of the mine over safety concerns.
Amid massive security operation, the prime minister visited Soma Wednesday, where protesters in kicked his car while calling for government resignations.
Addressing journalists, Erdogan cited 19th century mining disasters in the United Kingdom, claiming such tragedies were not confined to Turkey.
"About 204 people died in Britain after a mine collapse in 1838, 361 miners died there in 1866, and an explosion in 1894, 290 people died in Wales," he said, promising a thorough investigation of Tuesday's disaster.
Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, leader of Turkey's Republican People's Party, the group that issued calls last year to address occupational concerns for miners, was expected to visit Soma Wednesday.
Kani Beko, head of the leftwing trade union federation DISK, blames industry-wide privatization and subcontracting for the deadly accident.
"Occupational safety and health of workers is being neglected," he said, calling the accident a "massacre."
In Istanbul calls to protest working conditions were issued via social media, some encouraging demonstrators to congregate at the Soma Komur Isletmeleri headquarters, where the words "this building is built on the blood of the workers" was written on the wall.
Incidents of violence were reported at protests in Ankara, where police purported fired used tear gas canisters and water cannons to disperse students marching on the Energy Ministry.
At Istanbul's Taksim Square, two left-wing opposition newspaper vendors read out headlines to silent morning commuters: “Turkey is a graveyard for workers,” and “this wasn't an accident, this was negligence.”
The company said in a brief statement late on Tuesday that there had been “a grave accident” caused by an explosion in a substation but gave few other details.
The United States and other countries expressed sympathy to friends and relatives of those killed in the explosion.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Turkey today in the wake of a coal mine explosion in Soma in which some 200 have been killed and hundreds more remain trapped," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, echoing a State Department announcement expressing condolences and "hope that ongoing rescue efforts are successful and those who were injured make a full recovery."
"The United States stands with Turkey during this period of national mourning," it said.
Turkey's coal mines are notoriously dangerous, prompting some in parliament to demand an investigation into poor safety conditions.
The International Labor Organization ranked the EU candidate nation third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.
Turkey's rapid growth over the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy demands, with worker safety standards often failing to keep pace.
Its safety record for coal mining has been poor for decades, with its deadliest accident to date in 1992, when a gas blast killed 263 workers in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.
The Labor Ministry said late on Tuesday its officials had carried out regular inspections at the Soma mine, most recently in March, and that no irregularities had been detected.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.