NEW: Protesters lay symbolic coffins at government buildings, rail against Erdogan
274 are confirmed dead after an explosion, fire inside a mine in western Turkey
88 workers made it out of the mine; dozens may be trapped
Miner says there's "no hope" that anyone else is still alive
The scene was somber, sullen and mostly silent outside the Turkish coal mine. But every so often, the grief came out loud and clear.
“Enough for the life for me!” yelled one woman – her arms flailing, tears running down her cheeks – according to video from Turkish broadcaster DHA. “Let this mine take my life, too!”
As she was pulled away, she added, “Enough is enough.”
Sadly, the torment for her and many others isn’t over.
Yes, rescuers did save at least 88 miners in the frantic moments after a power transformer blew up Tuesday during shift change at the mine in the western Turkish city of Soma, sparking a choking fire deep inside.
But another 274 are known dead, according to Turkey’s Natural Disaster and Emergency Coordination Directorate. Those who underwent autopsies died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
There is every expectation that number will grow.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday as many as 120 more were trapped inside the mine, though that was before rescue crews grimly hurried a series of stretchers – at least some clearly carrying corpses – past the waiting crowd.
As helicopters buzzed overheard and flags flew at half-staff, police and rescue workers were everywhere on the scene Wednesday night. But for most, there was precious little they could do.
The smoke rose from openings in the ground showed the continuing dangers both to those trapped and anyone who dared try to get them. Rescue volunteer Mustafa Gursoy told the CNN team at the mine that conditions inside the mine were abominable – hot, smoky and filled with carbon monoxide.
Authorities worked to pump in good air into the mine, so they could get in. However, as Davitt McAteer, a former top U.S. mine safety official points out, sending in oxygen likely would “increase the likelihood that the fire would grow and continue to put those miners at risk.”
These stiff challenges notwithstanding, rescuers haven’t given up hope that some miners reached emergency chambers stocked with gas masks and air.
“If they could reach those emergency rooms and reach their gas masks and close the doors and protect those emergency areas from the poison gas, then they could survive,” Gursoy said. “It’s possible. We are ready for anything.”
But Yildiz, speaking earlier, said “hopes are diminishing” of rescuing anyone yet inside the mine.
Veysel Sengul has already given up. The miner knew that four of his friends – at least – are dead.
“It’s too late,” said Sengul. “There’s no more hope.”
The trauma from what already looks like the worst mine disaster in Turkish history has left Soma and the rest of Turkey in shock and, in some cases, in anger. The latest death toll already tops a mining accident in the 1990s that took 260 lives.
Even as officials in the United States and elsewhere offered their condolences to his people, Erdogan found himself on the defensive.
Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region had filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.
In some incidents three people died, in others, five, said opposition spokesman Aykut Erdogdu. And Ozel wanted to get to the bottom of the deaths.
Several dozen members of opposition parties signed on to his proposal, but the conservative government overturned it. Some of its members publicly lampooned it, he said.
Erdogan questioned Ozel’s version, and said the mine had passed safety inspections as recently as March.
The mine, owned by SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., underwent regular inspections in the past three years, two of them this March, Turkey’s government said. Inspectors reported no violation of health and safety laws.
The company has taken down its regular website and replaced it with a single Web page in all black containing a message of condolence.
Not everyone in Soma, at least, has sided with Erdogan, who canceled a trip to Albania to tour the rescue effort and speak to relatives of dead and injured miners.
He was met by a chorus of jeers as well as chants of “Resign Prime Minister!” while walking through the city Wednesday, according to DHA video.
Video from that network, social media messages and pictures posted to Twitter showed hundreds participating in anti-government protests in Istanbul and Ankara, with police answering in some cases with water cannons and tear gas.
While not focused on mine safety, such demonstrations railing against Erdogan and his government have been commonplace in Turkey in recent months, as has the police responding with water cannons and tear gas.
In the nation’s capital of Ankara, some called for silent demonstration to “stand for humanity.” Others left black coffins in front of the Energy Ministry and the Labor and Social Security ministry buildings.
That grim symbol speaks to the sadness permeating Turkey, whatever one’s political bent.
For Sengul, the miner waiting by the tunnel entrance for more of his friends to emerge, the mourning may go on much longer than the three days ordered by Erdogan.
After what’s happened, he said, he’ll never work in a mine again.
Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz reported from western Turkey; Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Michael Pearson, Ben Brumfield and Talia Kayali contributed to this report.