Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press
SAVASTEPE, Turkey — Miner Erdal Bicak believes he knows why so many of his colleagues died in Turkey's worst mining disaster: company negligence.
And he knows one other thing — he's never going back down any mine again.
Bicak, 24, had just ended his shift Tuesday and was making his way to the surface when managers ordered him to retreat because of a problem in the Soma coal mine in western Turkey. Workers gathered in one area to hastily put on gas masks.
"The company is guilty," Bicak told The Associated Press, adding that managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. "The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn't tell us in time."
The miner also said government safety inspectors never visited the lower reaches of the Soma mine and have no idea of how bad conditions get.
Government and mining officials have insisted, however, that the disaster that killed 301 workers was not due to negligence and the mine was inspected regularly.
Akin Celik, the Soma mine's operations manager, has said thick smoke from the underground fire killed many miners who had no gas masks. High levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide have also been a problem for rescue workers as well.
Bicak, whose leg was badly injured and in a cast, recounted his miraculous escape late Friday while at a candle-lit vigil for Soma victims in the town square of nearby Savastepe.
On Saturday, rescue workers retrieved the bodies of the last two miners missing in the disaster, putting the death toll at 301, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
He said 485 miners escaped or were rescued.
"Until today we had focused on search and rescue efforts. Now we will be focusing on investigations, on what will happen about production," Yildiz said.
"The true cause of the accident will be assessed ... through different dimensions," he added. "There will be lessons to draw for the mining world."
Public anger has surged in the wake of the Soma coal mine fire. Police used tear gas and water cannon Friday to disperse protesters in Soma who were demanding that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government resign.
On Saturday, police increased security in Soma to prevent new protests and detained lawyers who scuffled with police after objecting to identity checks, NTV television reported. The lawyers came to offer legal advice to the victims.
In Istanbul, police using their shields and batons pushed back a small group of protesters trying to leave some coal near a monument at the city's main square, Taksim, in a show of solidarity with the Soma victims, the Dogan news agency reported.
Recalling his ordeal, Bicak said he ended up about a kilometer (.6 miles) underground with 150 people Tuesday afternoon when he heard an explosion. He said they were given old oxygen masks that he thought hadn't been checked in many years.
Bicak and a close friend tried to make their way to an exit, but the smoke was thick. The path was narrow and steep, with ceilings so low the miners couldn't stand up, making it difficult to leave quickly. He and his friend took turns slapping each other to stay conscious.
"I told my friend 'I can't go on. Leave me here. I'm going to die,'" Bicak said. But his friend said to him, "'No, we're getting out of here.'"
Bicak eventually made it out of the mine with his friend — by then lapsing in and out of consciousness. He said he lost many friends and out of the 150 miners he was working with, only 15 made it out alive.
Company officials have claimed safety standards were high, that there were gas sensors at "50 locations" and that all employees were provided gas masks.
"We have brought (the mine) to the level of one of the most advanced mines in Turkey regarding safety," Alp Gurkan, chairman of Soma Holding, told reporters at a news conference in Soma on Friday.
The Milliyet newspaper said Saturday it saw a preliminary report by a mine safety expert who went into the Soma mine that suggested smoldering coal caused the mine's roof to collapse. The report said the tunnel's support beams were made of wood, not metal, and there were not enough carbon monoxide sensors.
Labor Minister Faruk Celik said investigations have been launched by both prosecutors and officials but "there is no report that has emerged yet."
Bicak said the last inspection at the Soma mine was six months ago. He said mine managers know that government inspectors only visit the top 100 meters (yards) of the mine, so they just clean up that part and the inspectors never see the narrow, steep, cramped sections below.
Mine owners are tipped off up to a week before an inspection, said Ozgur Ozel, an opposition lawmaker from the Soma region who has criticized the government for not adopting the International Labor Organization's convention on mine safety.
Bicak says his mining career is now over.
"I'm not going to be a miner anymore. God gave me a chance and now I'm done."
Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara. Follow Desmond Butler at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler
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