Death toll in China coal mine explosion reaches 164

The death toll in a Chinese coal mine explosion rose to 164 Thursday with seven missing but rescuers were still unsure how many workers were underground during the accident, highlighting the disorganized state of the country's disaster-plagued industry. Rescuers were still combing the debris at the Dongfeng Coal Mine in northeastern Heilongjiang province for more bodies and at least seven people were still missing, China's Xinhua News Agency said. Hope was fading fast for their survival, it said.

Workers who had been rescued just a day after the explosion told of breathing through wet towels and trying not to pass out for 17 hours in the smoke-filled pit, one account said.

Meanwhile, two mine officials had been detained for dereliction of duty, China Daily newspaper said but did not give any details.

One of them, Ma Jinguang, head of Dongfeng, had been declared a role model in mine management 10 days before the Nov. 27 accident, the newspaper said. The other was Chen Zhiqiang, the local Communist party secretary, it said. The mine's licence was suspended Thursday, Xinhua reported.

Zhang Chengxiang, director of the provincial work safety bureau, was quoted saying the mine had "serious problems" in its management. A man who answered the telephone at the Dongfeng mine refused to give any details on the detentions or the number of missing or dead miners.

On Wednesday, just hours after state television reported only one miner was unaccounted for, the death toll jumped to 161 from the 150 reported earlier in the day when rescuers pulled yet more bodies from the pit.

Officials initially put the number of miners working underground to 221 when the blast occurred based on how many miners' lamps were handed out. But work safety officials now say it's inaccurate because some miners had registered for work but did not go down the shaft, Xinhua said.

China Daily said Thursday at least 20 more miners were unaccounted for, although numbers have varied since the accident. China's mines are the deadliest in the world, with fires, floods, cave-ins and other disasters reported almost daily. The government has unveiled one initiative after another to try and stem the carnage, promising to step up safety inspections and punish mine owners who put profits over lives.

Many of the mine disasters are blamed on managers who ignore safety rules or fail to install required ventilation or fire control equipment, often in collusion with local officials. The issue is further complicated by the country's soaring demands for power to drive its booming economy, reports the AP. I.L.

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