ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — An explosion and a fire Tuesday killed at least 17 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey and trapped another 200 or more underground, the country's disaster agency said as it launched a massive rescue operation.
A power distribution unit exploded Tuesday afternoon at a mine in the town of Soma, local official Mehmet Bahattin Atci told reporters. The town is 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul.
Turkey's disaster and emergency management agency also said about 20 people had been rescued from the site so far, 11 of them with injuries.
Television footage showed people cheering and applauding as some trapped workers emerged out of the mine, helped by rescuers, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot. One wiped away tears on his jacket, another smiled, waved and flashed a "thumbs up" sign at onlookers.
The accident occurred during a shift change so the exact number of trapped workers was not known. Atci had said the blast left between 200 to 300 miners underground but the disaster agency later gave the number as "more than 200 workers."
There was no information on the condition of those trapped. But the disaster management agency said authorities were preparing for the possibility that the death toll could jump dramatically, making arrangements to set up a cold storage facility to hold the corpses of miners recovered from the site.
"Evacuation efforts are underway. I hope that we are able to rescue them," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised comments. His office said Erdogan postponed a one-day visit to Albania on Wednesday over the accident.
Rescuers were pumping fresh air into the mine and rescue teams from neighboring regions rushed to the area, said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who immediately went to Soma to oversee the rescue operation.
"It is a serious accident," he told reporters. "Our priority is to reach our miner brothers."
But the rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometers (miles) long, said Cengiz Ergun, the leader of Manisa province, where the town is located.
"The situation inside is troubling," Ergun told NTV television.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the mine and the hospital in Soma seeking news of their loved ones. NTV television said people broke into applause as rescued workers arrived in ambulances. Interviewed by Dogan news agency, some complained about the lack of information from state and company officials about the situation of the trapped workers.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away.
SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., which owns the mine, confirmed that a number of its workers were killed but would not give a specific figure. It said the accident occurred despite the "highest safety measures and constant controls" and added that an investigation was being launched.
"Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones," the company said in a statement.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.
Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
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