Mainland China on Saturday confirmed that more than 70 people died in a mine flooding accident and detained the mine owner, following a week of claims that no one perished.
The government’s most important newspaper, the People’s Daily, said more than 70 bodies had been recovered so far from the tin mine in southern China’s Guangxi province, confirming several municipal papers’ reports in the past week.
“The reason for the accident is the miners broke through an adjacent, abandoned shaft that was filled with water … At the time, miners and supervisors were unable to escape immediately after they broke the shaft wall,” the report said, and indicated the toll could be much higher.
Rescue workers were still trying to find bodies or survivors, it said.
Mine owner Li Dongming has been placed in custody as the central government on Friday sent a team of investigators to the scene, the report added, and confirmed there had been a cover-up.
“Ten days after the incident happened, Nanning (Guangxi’s capital) media received reports and this case was exposed … Reporters were followed and restricted. Responsible officials were trying to hide the truth,” the People’s Daily said.
More than 200 miners were trapped when the mine flooded on July 17 after the wall connected to the flooded pit was knocked down, according to several reports.
The People’s Daily report marked the first time the national media had reported the case. The paper’s Web site had Friday reported the deaths, but the Web site is not considered as official as the paper.
Li, a successful and well connected businessman in the province, apparently had the support of local officials to keep the accident under wraps.
Chinese and foreign journalists who called government officials at the local police station, mining bureau, and at the provincial office in charge of industrial safety, were told the accident did not happen or that no one died.
They and mine officials claimed the reports were “rumors spread by those envious of Li’s success”.
The mine had paid victims’ families about 20,000 yuan (US$2,400) each to buy their silence, reports had said.
Police in Duan county, which is near Nandan county where the accident occurred, were this weekend trekking to remote villages where many of the victims’ families live to try and gauge the death toll.
A resident in the county’s Gaoling township, where many victims lived, said the mine owner had paid victims’ families as much as 50,000 yuan (US$6,000) each and many families were afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.
A father of one of the dead miners was quoted by the People’s Daily Web site as saying he cried for three days after he learned of his son’s death.
Another family member said the mine owner should take care of the elderly and children.
Many of the miners are young men in their 20s, the Gaoling resident said.
“They know it’s a risky job, but there’s no other choice. In our town, 60 percent of young men work for mines. Accidents happen all the time,” he said.
Mine workers can earn 1,000 to 2,000 yuan a month, much more than the average local income.
Residents claimed central government orders to close unsafe mines were useless because local governments depended on the tax revenue from the mines and would turn a blind eye to those that illegally reopened.
If more than 200 deaths are confirmed, the accident will be mainland China’s worst mining disaster this year in an industry that has an abysmal record, with more than 10,000 deaths annually.