The deadly 43 minutes: Southern Weekend reveals causes of the Hegang disaster

For the family members of the recent Hegang coal mining accident that took the lives of 108 people in a gas explosion, one of the most tragic facts that will most likely haunt them forever is why so many workers ended up dying when dangerous levels of gas were identified nearly 43 minutes before the first explosion took place? Did the miners die in vain? What factors contributed to such a senseless tragedy that should have and could have been avoided? The influential newspaper Southern Weekend (南方周末), in an investigative research piece, has determined that the vast majority of workers at the Xinxing mine did not receive any warning about the exceedingly dangerous levels of gas despite that fact that the ground level headquarters received reports, and the mine management did not install a sufficient amount of emergency-use telephones that could have informed workers about the dangerous levels of gas.

The investigation and interviews with survivors demonstrate some other important points:

− Gas levels were twelve times over the legal limit at the time of the explosion. The levels were so high that the main inspector who first detected the levels took the batteries out of his mobile phone because he feared that the electricity could cause an explosion.

− Even after the first explosion occurred, some miners were still working and were not notified that they were in mortal danger.

− Survivors confirm that the electricity was not cut off until the first explosion, contradicting what the mine had said about cutting off electricity at the first reporting of dangerous levels of gas 43 minutes earlier.

− Interviewees report that in the past, gas inspectors had the power to give evacuation orders when they detected dangerous gas levels. Now, in order to boost production, only management was allowed to give evacuation orders.

− In January of this year, the mine produced a “Number One Document” (一号文) that extended the mandatory time spent in the mine per shift from four hours to seven hours. Any shift lasting less than seven hours underground would not be seen as valid, and any employee who prematurely came above ground, and his captain (带队长), and foreman (班组长) would all be subject to fines.

− Although this was a State-Owned mine, miners were still paid by piece rate (计件工资) and had no guaranteed base salary. Therefore, employees received no allowances from the mine if they were delayed for safety reasons. Gas inspectors thus came under tremendous pressure not to evacuate mines for safety reasons.

Unfortunately, the Southern Weekend article was not able to pinpoint exactly what happened at the ground headquarters that caused the first warning call to be missed by the rest of the employees. However, the interviews make clear that a de facto “money first, safety second” atmosphere was systematically established by management, and this was most likely a strong contributing factor to this tragedy. This profit-first mentality probably also contributed to two other coal mining accidents this week in Guizhou and Jilin that have killed 10 and 16 workers, respectively.

Underscoring the all-pervading role of money in China's blood-soaked coal industry, the Southern Weekend report concludes:

On 23 November, the State Administration of Work Safety determined the “11/21” incident to be a “serious accident involving serious consequences” (重大责任事故), and as the investigative team started to enter the local area and investigate the cause of the accident, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate shifted its focus to tracking down information and assigning responsibility to the relevant leaders. That evening, the Xinxing mine held an internal meeting about the accident, and announced that related leaders had suffered dismissal.

That night, the Hegang area precipitously dropped to -23° C, and scattered snow fell lightly on the hill of the mine’s search and rescue scene. The next morning, news came in that coal’s domestic price had hit a new high at 670 yuan per ton.
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