No. 9: Wangjialing Coal Miners

The accident in a northern Chinese mine in late March seemed to be yet another tragic moment in the country’s history of mining disasters. China is the largest producer of coal, contributing about half of the world’s supply. But the industry, which employs 3 million miners, remains exceptionally dangerous in China: More than 2,600 people were killed in mining accidents in 2009 alone. So when workers in the Wangjialing coal mine accidentally broke into an old shaft filled with water on March 28, filling the V-shaped mine with the equivalent of 56 Olympic swimming pools‘ worth of water, blocking the exit, many believed the 153 miners who didn’t escape were dead.

After several days of pumping water out of the mine — more than 11 million gallons of water each day — weary rescuers got a sign of life from the Wangjialing miners: a faint tapping on the pipes used to pump the water out. Then they pulled out a probe pipe and found a wire tied to the end. Rescuers descended into the mine, used inflatable rafts to navigate the flooded tunnels, and found dozens of men.

On Tomb-Sweeping Day, a holiday when Chinese honor the dead, 115 survivors were pulled out of the mine after being trapped for eight days. They reunited with family and called relatives from the hospital where they were treated after their rescue.

The men described eating belt leather and bark to survive. They drank the fetid floodwater and even their own urine. Some miners tied themselves to the wall with their belts to avoid drowning in their sleep. Although their first meals were glucose and rice gruel, designed not to upset their stomachs after near-starvation, the miners soon upgraded to noodles and asked for sausage and steamed bread.

The timing of the Wangjialing rescue was particularly poignant in the U.S. It came the day after an April 5 methane explosion blocked off the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia with 29 miners inside. Their relatives were left in suspense for four days, until rescue officials determined that all 29 of those trapped had died. The tragedy echoed that of the Sago mine, also in West Virginia, where a 2006 explosion killed 12 men and shocked the nation.

The United States is the world’s second-largest producer of coal, and it and China are the top coal consumers. But after Sago, Congress reformed mine safety laws, and mining fatalities fell to 34 in 2009 — the same year that 2,600 Chinese miners were killed on the job. After the Upper Big Branch disaster, reports emerged of the safety violations racked up by mine owner Massey Energy, and federal investigators opened a criminal investigation into the company’s practices. Although China recently enacted more safety rules, they are often not followed, and there are many illegal mines. In a chilling reminder of how lucky Wangjialing’s 115 survivors were, a gas explosion on October 16 in central Henan province killed 37 miners. In November, nearly 7,000 miles across the globe in New Zealand (which has a strong safety record), a gas explosion trapped 29 miners in the Pike River mine, and a second explosion a week later left no survivors.

Things may finally change in China: The government now requires mine managers to go down the shafts with their workers. One company tried to dodge the regulations by promoting seven workers, but Beijing promised to crack down on such subterfuge. The rule came down in October, around the same time that a relic of another amazing rescue came to China: a copy of the capsule used to rescue 33 men from a mine in Chile was displayed at the country’s booth at the Shanghai Expo, a testament to survival against the odds.

China may have learned something: The State Administration of Coal Mine Safety announced that emergency systems would be required in all mines (that announcement came just days before another rare rescue in late November, broadcast live, freed 29 workers from Sichuan Province’s Batian Coal Mine). State-owned and centrally administered mines aim to have emergency shelter facilities in place by June 2012.

–Cicely Wedgeworth