The miners’ “situation until now is still unknown so that is making everyone very worried,” Liu Dezheng, a chief engineer with the Work Safety Bureau in Shanxi province, told the South China Morning Post.
The flood may have started on Sunday afternoon when workers dug into a network of old, water-filled shafts. According to the State Work Safety Administration, 261 workers were inside the mine when it flooded, and 108 were able to escape or were rescued.
State television said the workers were trapped in nine different locations in the mine, which filled up with 140,000 cubic metres of water. Unless they are taken out soon, they could die from the lack of oxygen or from hunger. Gases from abandoned shafts could have also flowed into the mine, bringing new dangers such as explosions or poisoning.
Most of those trapped in the shaft are migrant workers from Shanxi, Hebei, Hunan and Guizhou provinces. Dozens of their frustrated relatives, including women carrying small children, gathered near the mine office, demanding rescuers pick up the pace. A few amid the crowd shouted at police who were trying to keep them from rushing into the office.
“We just received one phone call from” the miners, miner Li Jianhong said, “and after that there was no more contact.”
Experts blame the mine administration for the disaster, noting that Shanxi has many old mines, extending over large areas, which are dangerous to operate.
China’s mining industry is the world's deadliest. Accidents killed “only” 2,631 coal miners last year, fewer than half the 6,995 deaths in 2002. However, many analysts doubt that the figures reflect reality, believing instead that many deaths simply go unreported.
Beijing has tried for many years to improve mine safety through awareness campaigns and by shutting down smaller mines whose owners try to impose unsafe working conditions on miners.
Despite these efforts, deadly mining accidents involving hundreds of miners are still commonplace, even in state-owned mines like the Wangjialing mine, presented as a first-class model of safety and efficiency on the company’s website. On average, it produces six million tonnes of coal a year.
Coal meets about 70 per cent of China’s energy needs and is increasingly in demand.
Earlier this month, rescue efforts for 31 miners trapped when a coalmine flooded in the Inner Mongolia region of China were halted after two weeks when no sign of life was found.
Also this month, 25 miners died in a coalmine fire in Henan province.
In November, 108 miners were killed when an explosion ripped through a coalmine belonging to another state-owned firm in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.