Desperate efforts to save 181 Chinese coal miners from two shafts flooded with water and mud faced near impossible odds on Wednesday, as a safety official said mine owners had failed to anticipate the threat of disaster.
The miners have been trapped since Friday, when a river dyke burst in torrential rain sending water surging into the shafts -- a main one where 172 miners were missing and another nearby where there were nine.
The drama over the missing miners in the eastern province of Shandong has become a test of shaken public faith in government promises to improve safety at mines -- long the world's deadliest as producers strain to feed voracious energy demand.
Officials vowed to press ahead with attempts to pump the shafts dry, but even the official Xinhua news agency has said there was little hope of the men emerging alive.
Rescuers face more than 12 million cubic meters of water mixed with 300,000 cubic meters of mud and coal, the State Administration of Work Safety said.
By Wednesday afternoon, pumps were approaching drainage capacity of 2,000 cubic meters of water per hour. But rescuers have told Xinhua that even at 5,000 cubic meters per hour, it would take 100 days to drain away all the water.
The dyke that unleashed the torrent continued to leak on Wednesday after hundreds of troops and police blocked the main breach over the weekend with rocks, sandbags, trees and even trucks, the China News Service reported.
This has become a major peril to rescue efforts, the report said.
Relatives of the missing have protested that officials and the Huayuan Mining Co., which runs the bigger shaft, did not act to protect the men from swollen waters, have failed to keep kin informed, and are trying to wash away culpability by calling the incident a natural disaster.
Some of their accusations have been backed by the State Administration of Work Safety, which told the China Youth Daily that authorities did not heed signs of potential calamity.
Since July, there had been 15 cases of heavy rain causing mine floods, the agency spokesman, Huang Yi, was quoted as saying.
This shows that responses to accidents sparked by natural disasters have been inadequate, some employers have been lackadaisical and the preparation plans of the concerned parties been inadequate, he told the paper.
Only a day before the disaster, safety officials gathered in Xintai discussed the threat of floods in coal mines.
China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, which distributes disaster relief, also said the floods were a natural disaster -- which usually do not attract official compensation -- but families could expect special help because the victims were working at the time.
Public anger over official handling of the disaster has spilled over into the usually restrained state-run media.
As long as this is classified as a natural disaster, the coal mine leaders and the Xinwen coal authority can escape blame, a reader, who said they were from Xinwen, where main shaft is, wrote on the Sina news Web site (www.news.sina.com.cn).
Then they don't have to care about 172 wronged souls or the anguish of the families who have lost their kin.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in China's coal mines in the first seven months of this year alone.