Family members of 172 coal miners who had died in a flooded mine in eastern China said that officials have abandoned efforts to retrieve the bodies. Such treatment by the government and mining company were considered as callous.
A government committee notified some families that more than 40 days after the accident, flood waters remain high in the Huayuan Mining Co. mine and it is still too dangerous to enter.
"Due to these above mentioned reasons, there is no way to retrieve the bodies of the accident's victims," the Emergency Rescue Aftermath Working Group, an interagency committee dealing with the accident, said in the notice, dated Thursday. A copy was shown to The Associated Press.
The announcement added a bitter note for the relatives in what was already one of the worst mining accidents in 58 years of Communist rule. In addition to the 172 Huayuan miners, nine other miners in a smaller nearby mine were also caught in the flooding Aug. 17 when heavy rains caused a river to breach a dike and inundate low-lying ground outside Xintai city, 600 kilometers (370 miles) south of Beijing.
"They did not make rescue a priority and instead only thought about the value of mining. Are people not worth anything?" said Ma Xiuhua, whose brother was among the dead miners.
Government officials in Xintai city, at Shandong province and in Beijing refused to confirm the contents of the notice. An official in Xinwen county's mining bureau, where the Huayuan mine is located, said a public announcement about the dead miners would be made in coming days, but also declined to confirm whether the bodies would be left in the mine.
A duty officer at the smaller Minggong mine said none of the nine bodies had been retrieved but did not know if recovery efforts would be called off.
China's mines are notoriously deadly, with more than 4,700 miners dying in coal mining accidents last year. The toll has become an embarrassment to Communist authorities, as China relies on coal to meet more than two-thirds of its booming economy's energy needs.
The government remains fearful that miners and their families might launch angry protests. Shortly after the Huayuan accident, family members of the missing miners were told to stay home or were taken to hotels. Six weeks later, Ma and the wife of another dead miner said families - most of whom live close together in company housing - remain under surveillance.
"There are people watching my compound," said Ren Hua, whose miner husband is among the dead and who said she was questioned Saturday morning when she went out to buy vegetables. Although Ren had not seen the notice about the bodies, she heard about it from other families who telephoned her.
"All this time and not one body has been retrieved," she said. "None of the families agree with this."
The decision to leave the bodies effectively entombed in the mine comes three weeks after government and mining company officials acknowledged that the miners were likely dead. Ma and Ren said their families have been told they will receive more than 300,000 yuan (US$40,000; EUR30,000) in compensation, comprised of death benefits, insurance, welfare and other stipends.
Questions remain about why the 50-year-old Huayuan mine, which has both private and state-run shareholders, continued to operate amid heavy rains as several other mines in the area shut down. The official Xinhua News Agency has reported that Huayuan's chairman and its deputy general manager have been placed under investigation in the accident.
The committee notice about the bodies said that although pumping water from the mine continues, there is still more than 70 meters (230 feet) of water in the mine. Though the top of the mine could be put back into operation in about four months, most of the mine would not be usable for more than two years and would cost 400 million yuan (US$53 million; EUR40 million) to repair, the notice said.
"The investment would be so huge that there's no mining value," the notice said.