Deadly gas filled Turkish mine in minutes after blaze, operator says
* Mine operator says exact cause of fire unclear
* Build-up of heat led to partial collapse
* 284 confirmed dead, 18 remain trapped
* Company chairman says has no links to Erdogan
* Ruling party says mine inspected 11 times
Fire sent carbon monoxide coursing through a coal mine in western Turkey within minutes, killing close to 300 workers, but the exact cause of the country's worst industrial disaster remains unclear, the mine operator said on Friday.
An unexplained build-up of heat was thought to have led part of the mine to collapse on Tuesday, fanning a blaze which spread rapidly more than two kilometres below the surface, the mine's general manager Ramazan Dogru told a news conference.
Most of the 787 workers inside had oxygen masks but smoke and gas spread so quickly that many were unable to escape, with 284 confirmed dead and 18 believed still to be trapped and unlikely to be brought out alive.
"It was an unbelievable accident in a place where there have been very few accidents in 30 years," Soma Holding Chairman Alp Gurkan told the tense news conference. "A mine with top level miners, accepted as being the most trustworthy and organised."
Anger has swept Turkey as the extent of the disaster became clear, with protests partly directed at mine owners accused of prioritising profit over safety, and partly at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, seen as too cosy with industry tycoons and too lax in enforcing regulations.
Footage of Erdogan apparently slapping a man as residents jeered and jostled his entourage when he visited Soma, the scene of the disaster, did little to calm nerves. The man, Taner Kuruca, confirmed Erdogan had slapped him and told Kanal D television he was then beaten by his bodyguards.
AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik said there was no visual evidence of Erdogan striking anyone, while his adviser Yalcin Akdogan, writing in the Star newspaper, accused "gang members" of provoking the prime minister's team as he went to meet mourning families.
Questioned on the relationship between Soma Holding executives and Erdogan's ruling AK Party, Dogru confirmed his wife was a local AK Party politician but Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister before this week.
"I shook hands with him for the first time in my life here ... I don't know him at all and have never talked to him. There's not the slightest relationship between us," he said.
AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik said the formerly state-run mine at Soma, 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul, had been inspected 11 times over the past five years and denied any suggestion of loopholes in mining safety regulations.
Some mine workers took a different view.
"The inspections were carried out with a week's notice from Ankara and we were instructed to get ready," said one miner in Soma who gave his name as Ramazan, reluctant to identify himself further for fear of retribution by his employer.
"It was like putting make-up on the mine."
"GLOWING COAL FALLING"
Plant manager Akin Celik said there was no question of negligence on the part of the company, but Gurkan was more cautious, saying he would wait for the outcome of an inquiry led by the Labour Ministry, which is responsible for workplace safety standards.
"If there is neglect within the operations, a mistake, a shortcoming, I'll follow up legally to ensure those responsible are punished," he said, adding a foundation would probably be established to pay compensation to the families of the dead.
Some initial reports suggested a fire at an electrical sub-station in the mine had knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, but Dogru said this appeared not to have been the case.
"What we think happened is that there was a heating up which was not possible to detect ... The heated-up area collapsed with pieces of glowing coal falling, causing the fire to quickly spread. It has nothing to do with the sub-station," he said.
Celik, the plant manager, said intense smoke had then blocked the miners' way out, with visibility dropping to zero.
"Because of the fire escalating so quickly, people were not even able to move 20 metres," he said, pointing to an escape route on a diagram which he said the trapped miners had been unable to reach.
Akin estimated that efforts to pump clean air into the mine had helped to save around 100 workers. The company said 122 miners had been hospitalised and a further 363 had either escaped on their own or were helped to safety.
Thousands gathered after noon prayers on Thursday for mass funerals at Soma's main cemetery, where more than a hundred tightly packed graves have been newly dug. Efforts to retrieve those still trapped continued on the edge of a community where much of the population either works in or has relatives employed by the mining industry.