A dozen more deaths were confirmed Monday from a coal mine blast over the weekend, and government officials determined that negligence was to blame, vowing to punishing those responsible.
The additional deaths raised the toll to 104, and hope remained slim late last night for the remaining four miners trapped in Heilongjiang Province, Northeast China.
At the first meeting of the State Council Monday to investigate the cause of the explosion, Luo Lin, director of the State Administration of Work Safety and head of the investigation team, said the disaster occurred in the absence of proper safety protocols – namely the designation of someone to oversee safety, according to the China News Service.
"The mine has not carried out serious and thorough inspections to clear up any potential hazards,"he said, adding that the management had failed to evacuate the workers promptly after high gas intensity was detected in the pit.
The explosion occurred at around 2:30 am Saturday at the Xinxing Coal Mine, operated under a subsidiary of the State-owned Longmei Mining Holding Group in Hegang. Among the 528 miners who were working in the pit when the blast occurred, 420 escaped.
The rescue operation was ongoing Monday, but sources at the scene conceded that the odds of getting to any of the remaining men in time were slim.
Further complicating the investigation is the fact that it came just three days after provincial coal mine safety authorities sent a task force to examine the safety of the mine and no problems were reported.
Last month, in a special inspection by State work-safety authorities, the Hegang subsidiary was found to be using more than 4,200 pieces of uncertified equipment.
Neither inspection resulted in the mine owners rectifying their faulty operations.
The country's supreme prosecutors are already in Hegang to probe any power abuse or official misconduct behind the blast.
Three executives of the mine were removed from their posts Sunday. The government did not indicate if more officials would be held responsible.
Based on the preliminary investigation following the blast, Luo cited an inappropriate mining layout, poor management and organization in the shaft, and overloaded operation of the mine as being to blame for the blast.
A detailed report on the cause of the explosion will not be available for 60 days, the work safety administration told the Global Times Monday.
In addition to the deaths, 65 people were hurt and many remained hospitalized Monday with injuries ranging from gas poisoning and burns to fractures and bruises, according to the Xinhua News Agency. But the toll could have been much worse.
The 528 miners working the night shift at the time of the explosion was about half the number of the day shift, which exceeds normal standards.
Relatives of the victims stormed the mine's entrance Monday, demanding answers from owners and clashing with local police, Reuters reported.
The mine has rolled out two compensation plans, but it was unclear whether it had reached any agreement with the families of the victims.
According to the first plan, each victim is eligible for 11,400 yuan ($1,670) in mortuary grant-in-aid and a 92,000-yuan lump sum of aid for occupational death. Each victim's wife could get a pension of up to 708 yuan a month, while other dependent family members are entitled to 531 yuan a month.
The second plan states that each victim's family could get 326,000 yuan in a lump-sum compensation package.
"The amount has risen year by year according to the current life standard,"Wang Shuhe, the deputy general director of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, told the Global Times.
He said the compensation might not satisfy every victim and their relatives, but the government has a specific policy on calculating the compensation, which he said was arranged with the interests of the families in mind.
The Longmei Mining Group is a key State-owned mine with an annual output of 56 million tons of coal. It ranks No. 12 among China's top 100 mining companies, according to its website.
China reported a decline in mining incidents in recent years, as it has shut down or merged many smaller and private mines into State-owned operations, which are considered generally safer.
However, the mergers don't necessarily address safety issues if the owners compromise safety measures for profit.
In a separate colliery blast Sunday in central China's Hunan Province, the death toll had risen to 11 Monday, and three people were still missing, the local government confirmed.