A coal mine blast in northern China left at least 74 workers dead, the government said Thursday, marking the third massive coal mine disaster to hit China's perilous industry in recent weeks. The latest incident comes despite repeated government safety crackdowns and pledges by the leadership to improve conditions. China's mines are the world's deadliest, with accidents reported on a near-daily basis. The explosion Wednesday at the privately run Liuguantun Colliery in Tangshan, a city in Hebei province, occurred when 188 miners were underground, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Xinhua said an earlier article that reported 186 miners were underground was incorrect. An initial investigation showed that a mixture of airborne coal dust and gas known as fire damp ignited, causing the blast, Xinhua said.
Eighty-two managed to escape on their own and 32 miners were immediately rescued but three of those later died, Xinhua said. The bodies of 71 miners had been recovered from the mine by early Thursday, bringing the death toll to 74, it said.
Xinhua reported that an additional 32 miners remained missing but did not explain why these miners were not included in the figure for the total underground when the blast occurred.
Rescuers searching for miners in an unrelated blast in northern China last week struggled unsuccessfully for days to get an accurate count of how many miners were working when that blast occurred, underscoring the mismanagement and inattention to safety protocols that plague the industry.
At the Liuguantun Colliery, rescue efforts were driven nearly to a halt Thursday by dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide, Xinhua said. It said mine levels were nearly 100 times the acceptable standard, threatening another explosion. Li Yizhong, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, rushed to Liuguantun after the accident and on Thursday held a meeting with Hebei officials calling on them to step up safety measures, according to the administration's Web site.
The mine's owners promised to compensate each of the victims' families with at least 200,000 yuan (US$25,000; Ђ21,000), Xinhua said.
China churns out about 2 billion tons of coal a year, making it the world's largest coal producer followed by the United States which produces about 1 billion tons a year.
But China's mines are far deadlier. More than 6,027 people were killed in Chinese mines last year compared to the 28 reported killed in U.S. mines by the national Mine Safety and Health Administration. The worst Chinese mine disaster in recent years occurred in February in northeastern Liaoning province, when an explosion killed 214 miners.
Corruption, lax safety rules and poor equipment are among factors often blamed for the accidents. The government has shut down thousands of unsafe mines and punished mine owners who put profits ahead of lives. But China's enormous need for energy, stemming from its booming economy, has complicated the issue.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday said people were ignoring work safety in favor of meeting production targets and that the government was strongly committed to solving the problem. "The central government has given important instructions in this field on many occasions requiring government at different levels and in different regions to give top priority to work safety and do their utmost to avoid major incidents that cause great casualties," Qin said.
On Tuesday, rescuers recovered the body of the last miner missing in a Nov. 27 blast at the Dongfeng Coal Mine in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, bringing the number of fatalities in that blast to 171.
The accident prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to declare over the weekend that the industry was "chaotic and without safety enforcement in place," according to Li Yizhong, the director of China's State Administration of Work Safety.
Rescuers at the Sigou Coal Mine in central Henan province were on Wednesday still trying to save 42 miners trapped underground after the shaft flooded last Friday, Xinhua said.
Divers have been dispatched for the search, and rescuers have also fed a microphone into the mine to listen for signs of life, Xinhua said. So far, there has been no indication that the workers survived. A total of 76 miners were working underground at the time, and 34 escaped, reports the AP. I.L.