Accident is China's deadliest in 2 years

HEGANG, China — When gas levels suddenly spiked deep in the Xinxing coal mine, Wang Jiguo grabbed two co-workers and they ran for their lives. Minutes later, there was a huge bang, a torrent of hot air, and the earth shuddered.

Nearly two days later, at least 92 people were reported dead and 16 missing, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The deadliest accident in China's mining industry for two years highlighted how heavy demand for power-generating coal comes at a high human cost.

' 'Development is important, but the growth of GDP shouldn't be achieved at the price of miners' blood,'' said provincial governor Li Zhanshu, urging officials to better manage coal mines.

Coal is vital for China's economy, which is targeted to grow by 8 percent this year, and its 1.3 billion people, as it is used to generate about three-quarters of the country's electricity.

As search teams in mining carts descended Sunday in what authorities continued to call a rescue mission, fellow miners gathered in freezing weather near the still-steaming shaft and watched silently.

The blast at the nearly 100-year-old mine in Heilongjiang province, near the Russian border, dealt a blow to the central government's race to improve safety, which has seen the closing or absorbing of hundreds of smaller, private mines into state-owned operations.

The government says the closure of about 1,000 dangerous small mines last year has helped cut fatalities. Yet hundreds still die in major accidents each year, even at state-run mines, such as a blast in Shanxi province in February that killed 78 and a gas leak in Chongqing municipality in May that killed 30.

After Saturday's accident, the Xinxing mine's director, deputy director and chief engineer were fired, said an employee, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The explosion at 2:30 a.m. Saturday shook the residents of Hegang, an aging city in China's Rust Belt where the streetside snow is gray with coal dust and exhaust.

Longtime residents said the mine had never suffered such an accident before.

Of the 528 people reported working in the mine at the time of the explosion, 420 escaped, Xinhua reported. At the Hegang Mining Group General Hospital, which a spokesman said was treating 32 injured miners, a few were in the intensive care unit under police guard.

Authorities said the 16 miners still missing were trapped about a third of a mile underground. One entrance was blocked, and rescue teams in orange work suits and yellow hard hats were sent underground in mining carts down a separate shaft.