Turkey Mine Fire Kills at Least 232, And Hundreds Remain Trapped

In one of the country's worst mining disasters, at least 232 workers are dead and more than 200 others are still missing after an underground explosion and fire at a Turkish coal mine Tuesday. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of mourning as teams work frantically to recover those inside. Nearly 800 people were inside the coal mine south of Istanbul at the time of the explosion and 363 had been rescued so far, according to Energy Minister Taner Yildiz.

"Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing," Yildiz said.

A transformer blew up, according to officials, sparking a blaze that continued to burn a day later. Smoke billowed out of openings in the ground, with authorities attributing carbon-monoxide poisoning as the cause of many fatalities. Rescuers are pumping fresh air down into the shaft to areas that aren't consumed by fire, CNN reports. The amount of smoke and levels of carbon dioxide make it dangerous for crews to continue the recovery efforts.

Family members crowded outside the mine to identify the bodies of their loved ones, waiting as workers were brought out on stretchers covered with blankets. Police had to restrain one elderly man from climbing into the ambulance with one of the dead, according to the Telegraph. The mass casualties and injured are devastating due in part to a shift change that was taking place during the explosion.

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Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012 and there were no issues or violations surrounding work safety or security. The last inspection was March 2014. Still, poor safety conditions make such mine accidents common in Turkey, according to the Associated Press. In 1992, a gas explosion killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak, marking the country's worst mining disaster yet.

It's not just limited to Turkey. Safety concerns are rising as fatal mine incidents claim the lives of workers around the world — on Monday, two miners in West Virginia were killed in a coalfield deemed a "pattern violator." Landslides and gas explosions have trapped and killed hundreds, including 83 workers in Tibet who were buried at a gold mining site in 2013. And let's not forget the miraculous story of the 33 Chilean miners rescued after being trapped for 69 days.

So why are coal mine explosions so common? Conditions underground can be a recipe for disaster, with some explosions occurring as a result of the methane gas buildup released by coal, combined with the lack of air down there to alleviate the chemical levels. In the United States, there have been at least 500 coal mine explosions killing at least five people each since 1839, and at least 52 mine fires with similar casualties.