China Mine Blast Kills 203; Missing Sought

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Rescue crews on Tuesday were searching for a dozen coal miners missing nearly 800 feet underground after a gas explosion in China's northeast killed 203 people in the deadliest mining disaster reported since communist rule began in 1949.

The explosion Monday afternoon at the Sunjiawan mine left 12 miners trapped underground and injured 22 others with carbon monoxide poisoning, burns and fractures, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

One trapped miner was rescued Tuesday afternoon, nearly 24 hours after the blast, Xinhua said.

The cause of the blast was under investigation, Xinhua said. It said the disaster occurred 794 feet below the surface.

Late Tuesday, a thick cordon of men in dark coats and helmets stood side by side, blocking the entrance to the mine, as cars full of paramilitary police patrolled the site. A line of vans waited to transport any injured to hospitals in Fuxin, a gritty soot-covered city where mining is the main industry.

"Mining is just too dangerous, but it's a struggle to find work here," said Zhang Qiang, a Fuxin native who said he performs odd jobs to make ends meet.

President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders issued orders for local officials "to spare no effort to rescue those stranded in the mine," Xinhua said. It said they called for "strict measures" to prevent any more such disasters.

A government work team headed by a member of China's Cabinet arrived Tuesday morning at the mine in Liaoning province to help find the missing, treat the injured and prepare compensation for victims' families, Xinhua said.

Rescuers in the far northeastern province were faced with roads made wet by an overnight snowfall and below freezing temperatures.

China has suffered a string of deadly mining disasters in recent months despite a nationwide safety campaign.

A blast in the northern province of Shaanxi in November killed 166 miners. Another explosion in October killed 148. Before that, the deadliest reported mining accident in recent years was a fire in southern China that killed 162 miners in 2000.

The endless accidents are an embarrassment to the new Chinese leadership that took power in 2003 and has taken pains to portray itself as sympathetic to the concerns of the common people, especially farmers and miners.

Last month, Premier Wen Jiabao visited some of the families of the 166 miners killed in Shaanxi, crying during the visit and saying the accident was a "lesson paid for with blood." He promised better mine safety measures and better training.

In 2003, just before being named premier, Wen made a highly publicized visit to a mine in the Fuxin region of Liaoning, donning a miner's cap and eating pork dumplings with workers deep below the surface.

The accident Monday also occurred in Fuxin but it wasn't immediately clear whether the mine Wen visited was the same one involved in the accident.

Monday's disaster was the deadliest reported by the Chinese government since the 1949 communist revolution. However, until the late 1990s, when the government began regularly announcing statistics on mining deaths, many industrial accidents were never disclosed.

In 1942, China's northeast was the site of the world's deadliest coal mining disaster when an accident killed 1,549 miners in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during World War II.

China's mines are by far the world's deadliest, with more than 6,000 deaths last year in mine floods, explosions and fires. China says it accounted for 80 percent of all coal mining deaths worldwide last year. The government said the toll was 8 percent below the number killed the previous year. But the government says China's fatality rate per ton of coal mined is still 100 times that of the United States.

Mine owners and local officials are frequently blamed for putting profits ahead of safety, especially as the nation's soaring energy needs increase demand for coal.

China is the world's top producer of coal, with some 1.9 billion tons extracted last year, 10 percent more than in 2003.

But with industrial output soaring amid 9 percent-plus economic growth, supplies of coal and electricity have still failed to keep up with surging needs, causing hundreds of thousands of brownouts.