Rescuers at the site of a coal mine explosion that killed 150 people in northeast China now say an additional 33 miners may be missing, state television reported yesterday.
The blast occurred on Sunday at the Dongfeng Coal Mine in the Heilongjiang Province town of Qitaihe and officials initially said 221 miners were underground at the time. But records now show 254 were registered to be working and rescuers were trying to find the extra 33 people, China Central Television said.
The mine blast already ranks among China's deadliest, and the specter of a dramatically higher death toll further highlights the dreadful state of the nation's mining industry.
Mine accidents claim more than 5,000 lives each year in China -- more than anywhere else in the world. The government has unveiled one safety campaign after another as it repeatedly vows to stem the carnage.
But, the rate of large-scale accidents is increasing, according to Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
"Chinese coal miners are paying with their blood to support China's 8 percent annual economic growth," the group said. "This is really too cruel and too heavy a price to pay."
In Qitaihe, there was a grim resignation.
"There's nothing we can do about it," said Zhang Yaowu, a former miner whose son Zhang Xianhe was killed in Sunday's blast. "We need to work, and the work is dangerous. We need to get on with life."
So far, 148 bodies have been recovered from the mineshaft, reports say. Another two workers -- both women -- were killed above-ground when coal dust in the mine ignited, the official Xinhua News Agency has said.
There was no official word on whether misconduct or human error was suspected.
More than 70 miners were rescued, reports have said. The CCTV report didn't make clear whether there were other workers still missing beyond the 33 additional miners being sought yesterday.
Many of China's mine disasters are blamed on managers who ignore safety rules or fail to install required ventilation or fire control equipment, often in collusion with local officials.
"This industry is too corrupt," said Yuan Yongqing, whose younger brother Yuan Yongcun was among the dead. A veteran of two decades in the same mine, Yongcun was 48 years old and had a wife, son and daughter-in-law at home.
Coal mining dominates this town in China's Heilongjiang province, part of the region once known as Manchuria. Slag heaps from dozens of coal pits dot the countryside.
Seeking to reduce mining deaths, the Chinese government has announced the creation of a national network of safety inspectors, stricter fire standards and shorter working hours for miners to prevent fatigue.
Authorities say they have shut down more than 12,000 coal mines this year for inspections. Thousands have been ordered to improve their facilities, and many others aren't expected to reopen.
But the death toll in China's mines continues to mount.
"As coal mine accidents happen again and again, and more workers lose their lives in the pits," said China Labor Bulletin, "we have to ask how effective are these emergency meetings, `courageous and extraordinary' measures, and `strong determination' in reducing the soaring number of coal mine accidents."