More than 100 miners who survived eight days in a flooded shaft by hanging by their belts and eating sawdust were brought to the surface today in what one Chinese official called a "miracle."
China's state-run television showed live images of the rescuers in tears, cheering and hugging each other as the survivors were brought out one by one in stretchers, wrapped in blankets and loaded into waiting ambulances.
"It is a miracle in China's mining rescue history," said Luo Lin, who heads the government agency in charge of work safety.
The leader of a rescue team, Chen Yongsheng, told state media the rescuers still have to reach two or three underground mine platforms to search for the remaining 38 miners.
An army of 3,000 personnel was mobilized by Chinese authorities for a round-the-clock operation to rescue 153 miners who got trapped in a flooded mine in north China's Shanxi province.
Their efforts paid off today with the "miracle rescue" of 115 miners. The miners were already in their eighth day underground when rescuers were finally able to reach them. They had been trapped since March 28 when workers digging a tunnel broke into an abandoned shaft filled with water.
The rescue teams had been pumping water out of the mine for days. When the water level finally dropped to a certain point, the rescuers were able to enter the pit on rubber rafts, going through the murky waters in the narrow, low-ceilinged passageway.
They managed to pull out the first nine survivors early Monday morning, prompting the state broadcaster to break into unprecedented live reports from the mining area, recording the building excitement as more men were brought to the surface.
A rescue official told state media that most of the survivors were found on a platform where rescuers were able to drill a hole from above ground last week, ensuring oxygen in the flooded pit.
One miner described how he managed to survive by eating sawdust and tree bark and drinking the murky water. Some other miners said they resorted to hanging from shaft walls by their belts to avoid falling into the water when they slept. They later climbed into a mining cart that floated by.
He added that the search operation was complicated by the tough conditions inside the shafts. "The space in the flooded mine is small. The water level was less than three feet from the top of the passageway," Chen said.
The 115 survivors were brought to five hospitals for medical treatment. Chinese officials said most of the rescued miners were in stable condition, but a medical officer in the rescue operation said the survivors were suffering from hypothermia, severe dehydration and skin infections from being in the water so long. A report on Chinese television said seven were in serious condition.
Despite the unexpected success of the rescue operation, this mining accident placed a spotlight on the safety conditions of China's coal mines, which hold a record for being the world's deadliest.
More than 2,600 Chinese coal miners perished in accidents last year, which was an improvement from the 6,995 deaths recorded in 2002, the most dangerous year recorded by official government figures.
A preliminary investigation last week by the State Administration of Work Safety found that the mine's managers ignored water leaks before the accident.
The state-owned mine is a major project of Shanxi province, the center of China's coal mining industry. It is expected to produce 6 million tons of coal a year once it goes into operation.