Turkey mine disaster survivor recounts underground horror: Nahlah Ayed

A survivor of the Soma coal mine disaster in Turkey recounts the confusion and horror of being trapped underground after the initial explosion, and of seeing workers around him lose consciousness as deadly smoke began seeping in.

Murat Yokus huddled in air chamber, watching as others started falling unconscious

Murat Yokus, a 30-year-old miner from Soma, survived the coal mine disaster that killed several of his friends. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

When Murat Yokus settled in to the idea that he was about to die, he took a moment to consider what he was leaving behind.

"I rested my head against the wall and thought about my family: my wife, my children," he says, cradling his daughter in his lap.

In front of my own eyes I saw them struggling — between life and death.- Soma coal mine survivor Murat Yokus

"They flashed before my eyes."

It is one of a number of vivid moments that wreak havoc with Yokus’s attempt at composure, in an interview with him just over two days after he survived Turkey’s worst mine disaster.

It is readily apparent that the hours he spent stuck somewhere underground at the stricken Soma coal mine — and all that he saw there — are still too close for the 30-year-old father of two, who has been a miner for eight years.

He had just finished his shift and was about to head home to that family, when an explosion and a fire deep inside the mine dramatically altered his life — and ended 301 others.

He and 142 others took refuge in an air chamber — some three to four kilometres, he said, from the mine’s exit. This is a room that miners visit before exiting the mine on any given day, and different from a rescue chamber.

They waited for rescue, as they were instructed by supervisors. They watched calmly, he said, as deadly smoke slowly seeped in.

From grief to anger

"Why would we panic?" he asked. "Everyone knew we were going to die.

"We accepted that."

According to the mine’s operators, it was, ultimately, carbon monoxide that killed the vast majority of its men underground. Exactly one week later, though, the cause of Tuesday’s explosion and fire still isn’t clear.

Senem Yildirim is a mother of two of 11 men killed in a mine accident and she lives in the small village of Elmedere. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The anger, however, has been building steadily across the country. 

Despite this past weekend’s arrests, there are many here who believe even the government might be culpable for its alleged failure to enforce adequate safety standards. Many believe the tragic death of so many could — and should — have been avoided. 

That belief has surged as the depth of the loss here — the horror of it — sinks in. 

As survivors speak out, their stories put the deaths of their colleagues into perspective, giving some sense of what they may have endured in their final moments.

There have been reports some miners took turns breathing to save air. One survivor reported witnessing a colleague trying to commit suicide by hanging.

Some of the most vivid moments for Yokus were watching as his colleagues started falling unconscious. 

"In front of my own eyes I saw them struggling — between life and death," he says, again struggling to fight back tears.

He tried to keep one of them awake, and watched helplessly as some of them convulsed, and as others perished.

Yokus refused to say more about what else he saw. 

Ten men would die in that chamber. Yokus, too, eventually collapsed to the ground and fell unconscious. 

When he came to, he was being carried out of the mine. He vividly remembers refusing a stretcher because it would take four men to carry him. He believed two would be enough to help him, that the others should rush back to save others.

Since then, he has mostly been at home among family — visibly fragile with red-rimmed eyes; he speaks reluctantly.

During our interview in his garden, family and friends hovered nearby watching over him, while the women of the family observed from a second-floor balcony. A steady stream of dignitaries and friends came for the dual purpose of congratulating him for surviving, and paying condolences for the friends who didn’t.

11 men gone in Elmadere

Still, Yokus and his family were among the lucky ones. 

Down the highway from Soma and up a winding mountain road lined with lush greenery, the village of Elmadere mourns like no place else in the region.

Its population is a mere 250. The mine tragedy claimed the lives of 11 of its men.

Senem Yildrium bore more of the brunt than anyone else in the village, she lost not one, but two sons, Ilkay, who was 34, and Sami, 30.

"My world is shattered. My children are gone because of negligence," she says, stoically. She adds her husband’s mind, however, couldn’t cope with the loss and he is now in hospital.

"The guilty ones should be found. Now my grandchildren have lost their fathers. What shall we do? We have no money. My children were taking care of me."

As of Sunday, the village had not received a visit from a single government representative.

The men of Elmadere, many of them miners, suspect lax safety standards were the problem. One of them said he’d heard many of the men did not even know how to put on a gas mask, that carbon monoxide levels were far too high in the mine.

Yildrium says her sons both complained of headaches, that they often felt nauseous.

And yet Elmadere would starve without the jobs mining provides here. So despite reservations, the men who work at other mines are likely to head back to work.

Never again

After all that happened — his miraculous escape — Yokus says he never wants to enter a coal mine again.
But like so many who end up in the job, alternatives are hard to come by.

"If the government helps, I may not go back into the mine. But if it doesn’t, then what choice do I have but to go back?"

Yokus is eager for the interview to end. He is planning on visiting the Soma cemetery to pay his respects. 

He has not yet seen the mass graves — the lineup of mounds of earth decorated with flowers where many of his colleagues, and two close friends now rest. 

He has not yet walked up to the entrance, welcomed by volunteers, only to be assaulted by the strong odour of decaying human flesh.

And yet despite his state, he’s determined to go. He’s clearly wracked by guilt, at having survived when so many didn’t.

"May God make a place in heaven for them," he concludes.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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