Rescuers race against time at flooded mine

PINGTANG, Guizhou – When 28-year-old firefighter Deng Jifei emerged from a collapsed coal mine at 1 am on Sunday, his uniform was steeped in sweat.

“Let me take a break,” he said, breathing heavily. “I can’t talk anymore.”

During the previous two hours, he and his team had been in and out of the 100-meter-deep pit three times, delivering heavy pumping equipment in a race against time to save 23 people trapped underground by a flood on Saturday at Niupeng Coal Mine in Pingtang county, Qiannan Bouyei and Miao autonomous prefecture, Guizhou province.

The task of Deng and his elite team of six, which is under the fire department of Qiannan, was to carry pipes and pumps to the entrance of the coal mine and to send them down the shaft. The six firemen carried the pipes, each weighing more than 50 kilograms, for about 180 meters through the narrow and steep stairs to reach the surface of the floodwater where the pumps were located.

“The stairs are quite slippery and we have to walk slowly and carefully each time,” said Jiang Honglin, a 21-year-old team member. He said that although lights had been sent down, it was still dark and dangerous in the shaft.

“A small slip from any of the team will drag us into the abyss with the heavy pipe,” he said, adding every delivery takes them nearly half an hour.

“The youngest man, a 19-year-old, was obviously scared and almost collapsing, but he pulled through,” said Deng.

After working underground, Deng’s team also carried nine pumps, each weighing 165 kilograms, 100 meters to the entrance.

Before they finally got a chance to take a nap at 4 am on Sunday, they had been working for 12 hours continuously.

They slept in two temporary tents put up 100 meters from the coal mine, but were wakened four hours later, and, after a breakfast consisting of a bottle of soya milk and some steamed buns, were back on duty again.

Sunday was both hot and rainy, which “slows our efforts,” said 21-year-old Liao Tiancheng.

According to Mao Youzhi, head of the Pingtang government, more than 1,000 police officers, firefighters and paramilitary personnel have been mobilized for the rescue effort and at least five special rescue forces, including Deng’s team, are in operation.

“My team saves more than a hundred lives a year,” Deng said proudly.

However, according to a China National Radio report, a miner who escaped the mine said the chances of the trapped miners surviving the flood were “very slim”.

Mao said at a news conference on Sunday that the government may offer 15 million yuan ($2.3 million) in compensation to the miners’ families if they cannot be rescued.


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