HEGANG, November 23, 2009 - Gao Shujun is one of the seven million Chinese coal miners who every day brave long hours in dangerous working conditions, but it is the price he must pay for economic survival.
Lying in a hospital bed Monday, Gao reflected on the deadly nature of his job after surviving a weekend mine blast that killed at least 104 fellow miners in the city of Hegang in northeastern Heilongjiang province.
"The work is not safe, it's dangerous, look at what happened. But the salary is higher than other jobs," Gao told AFP as a nurse changed his intravenous drip.
"I don't like it, but I have no education, I didn't study well (at school) so this is the inevitable result."
Still in shock, Gao expressed quiet surprise that he survived the massive explosion that ripped through the mine.
The 31-year-old emerged with injuries to his abdomen, leg and hand. A friend and former schoolmate was among those killed.
China's coal mines are among the most dangerous in the world, with safety standards often ignored in the quest for profits and the drive to meet surging demand for coal -- the source of about 70 percent of the country's energy.
Saturday's accident was the worst in China since 105 miners were killed in a similar blast in Shanxi province in December 2007.
Despite their sacrifices, many of the miners who provide the raw fuel for China's dramatic economic growth remain poor. Many are migrants from poverty-stricken regions, doing the work that others will not.
For poor miners such as Gao, there is no time for fear, and he said he would return to the pits.
"I'm not scared. I can't be because I have to earn money to survive," he said.
Gao earns around 2,000 yuan (300 dollars) a month and typically stays underground for up to 10 hours at a time.
Before he began working in the Hegang mine in 2002, Gao earned a living doing odd jobs, including one stint as a cook.
But none of these paid as much or provided the stability of a job at a state-owned enterprise such as the mine, which belongs to Heilongjiang Longmay Mining Holding Group.
Official figures show that more than 3,200 workers died in coal mines last year. But independent labour groups say many more deaths are covered up as mines seek to avoid costly shutdowns and fines.
Preliminary investigations into the explosion have pointed to lax management as a key cause of the disaster, investigators told state television.
A total of 65 survivors were being treated in two Hegang hospitals, five of whom were said to be in serious but not life-threatening condition.
In a bed next to Gao, fellow miner Zhang Ping'an rested, a bandage over his left eye and his body hooked up to several intravenous drips. He spoke with difficulty as his wife Huang Qinyun watched over him.
Zhang's mining job was vital to supporting their small family. The couple, both in their early thirties, have an eight-year-old son.
But despite her relief that Zhang had survived, Huang complained that life in the mines was "very tough."
The official China News Service reported that families of the dead miners would receive up to 300,000 yuan (44,000 dollars) in compensation.
For most of the injured, however, recovery will likely mean a return to the long hours and hazardous conditions of the mines.
Huang said her husband often worked up to 20 hours a day to earn overtime pay.
"(Zhang) gets up at five in the morning, and sometimes doesn't get back until midnight," she said.