The operator of the Soma mine has denied any negligence in the worst mining disaster in Turkey’s history, while admitting that a refuge chamber that could have saved lives had not yet been constructed. Nevertheless, Soma Holding head Ali Gürkan vowed to continue operating the mine after “shortcomings are addressed” in the wake of the May 13 disaster.
“There was no negligence on our side. I have worked in mines for 20 years, and I did not witness such an incident [here on May 13],” said Akın Çelik, the operating manager of the Soma Coal Mining Company, during a press conference May 16.
When asked if the company would continue to operate the mine, Gürkan said: “Of course. After all the measures are taken and the missing room [for the refuge chamber] is built, this operation will continue.”
“Legally, we don’t have an obligation to build a refuge chamber. But we would have completed it in three-four months if this accident hadn’t happened,” Gürkan said.
No refuge chamber, but escape point
The officials have admitted that there was no refuge chamber in the mine, but added that there was an escape point close to ground level, allowing workers to exit without walking the 300 meters to the main entrance.
When the facility was first established, there was one refuge room that could host 500 people at the center of the mine, but it was closed when production ended in that area of the mine.
As the production area was moved to a deeper part of the mine, preparations were underway to build refuge rooms there, according to the executives.
If the accident had happened 3-4 months later, the construction of refuge rooms would have been finished and the workers would have survived.
Reason remains unknown
Officials have accepted that they do not know the reason of the accident, describing the fire as being technically unexplainable.
The cause of the fire was heated coal, and no flames erupted at a power distribution unit in the mine, they said.
“The incident happened in three to five minutes. The gas filled everywhere in five minutes,” Çelik added.
Gürkan, also said they had made the necessary investments to ensure the safety of workers. “We have spent our income to improve working conditions to avoid possible accidents,” Gürkan said, while refusing to answer questions from journalists.
“I am in severe pain. People who know me would understand,” he said, noting that he had health issues.
Çelik also confirmed that there were 787 workers inside the mine when the disaster occurred. He said that 363 workers managed to escape the mine after the accident, while another 122 were rescued injured and transferred to nearby hospitals.
Çelik also confirmed a previous statement by Energy Minister Taner Çelik who said 18 miners remained trapped inside the mine.
Officals have declined to provide a list of the 787 workers, saying they do not have the authority to release it publicly as all data has been delivered to Turkey’s disaster agency AFAD.
No child workers
Another senior company official, Celalletin Gökaşan, has categorically rejected claims that they employed child workers or subcontracted workers.
“There are no foreign, minor or subcontracted workers,” Gökaşan said, answering to widespread criticism about the company’s alleged mismanagement of the mine.
Along with the compensation required by law, there is a program to give more support to the families of victims, Gürkan said.
While the scale of the project is yet to be determined for the moment, the company will cover the education tuition of the victims’ children and other costs, he added.
The Soma coal mine, which is the region’s biggest facility employing up to 6,500 workers, was privatized at the end of the 1970s.