Turkey mine survivor blames company for tragedy

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Anti-government protesters chant slogans on a monument for the town’s miners, during a march in Soma, Turkey where the mine accident took place, Friday, May 16, 2014. Hundreds of protesters took part in the march against the government and there were clashes with the police forces. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Anti-government protesters chant slogans on a monument for the town’s miners, during a march in Soma, Turkey where the mine accident took place, Friday, May 16, 2014. Hundreds of protesters took part in the march against the government and there were clashes with the police forces. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Turkish rescue workers stand, at the entrance of the coal mine in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. A Turkish mining company defended its safety record Friday, four days after over 250 people died in an underground blaze at its coal mine in western Turkey.(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

A Turkish Blue Beret stands at the entrance of the coal mine in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. A Turkish mining company defended its safety record Friday, four days after over 250 people died in an underground blaze at its coal mine in western Turkey. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Turkish Blue Berets stand at the entrance of the coal mine in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. A Turkish mining company defended its safety record Friday, four days after over 250 people died in an underground blaze at its coal mine in western Turkey.(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

A relative of a victim of the mine accident weeps next to the grave of her loved one, in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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SAVASTEPE, Turkey (AP) — A survivor of Turkey’s worst mining disaster that killed at least 292 people accused mining company officials of negligence, saying Friday outdated oxygen masks were handed out after the explosion and inspections weren’t thorough enough. The mining company has vehemently denied any carelessness.

Erdal Bicak, 24, said he had just ended his shift Tuesday and he had started to go up to the surface when mine managers ordered him back down because there was a problem.

“The company is guilty,” Bicak said, saying managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. “The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn’t tell us in time.”

His accusations came as Turkish government and mining company officials vehemently denied that negligence was at the root of the country’s worst mining disaster even as opposition lawmakers raised questions about possible lax oversight.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said at least 292 people died in the tragedy in the western town of Soma. Another nine or 10 people are believed to be missing underground while 485 miners escaped or were rescued from the inferno.

Protesting workers have described the Soma disaster as murder, not an accident, because of what they call flawed safety conditions at that mine and others in the country. Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Soma, where about 1,500 demonstrators urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to resign.

The government has asked for a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster to find out what happened and why — but it appeared that officials had already made up their minds Friday.

“There’s no negligence with respect to this incident,” insisted Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party. He said the mine in Soma “was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009.”

“Let’s learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes,” he said. “(But) this is not the time to look for a scapegoat.”

Bicak, however, said the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months before the disaster. He said the inspectors only visit the top 100 meters of the mine and the managers knew that. So, the managers would clean up the top part of the mine and the inspectors never saw what was below, he said.

The miner said the pathways are really narrow and steep down below, and the ceilings are so low miners can’t stand up, he said, adding that’s why it was so hard to get out and that was what the inspectors weren’t seeing.

But Akin Celik, the Soma mining company’s operations manager, echoed the government’s argument.

“There’s no negligence with respect to this incident. We all worked with all our heart and soul. I have not seen anything like this in 20 years,” he told reporters.

Their comments raised the question, however, of how the mine could have been checked so often and still have such a deadly fire.

Ibrahim Ali Hasdan, a Soma resident, said he was astonished by claims there was no negligence.

“This statement hurts people’s hearts … even a young child wouldn’t be convinced by this statement,” he said.

The chief prosecutor in the nearby city of Akhisar said prosecutors had begun interviewing some of the injured miners and other witnesses.

Ozgur Ozel, an opposition lawmaker from the Soma region, petitioned parliament in October to hold an inquiry into mine safety but the proposal was voted down. Ozel says there’s a mine accident every three or four months in the Soma region and eleven workers have died in the last three years.

Mine inspections do take place but the owners are tipped off up to a week before, Ozel alleged.

“The main suspicion about it is that there is a relationship

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