WOMEN wailed uncontrollably, men knelt sobbing and others just stared in disbelief outside a coal mine in western Turkey as rescue workers removed a steady stream of bodies from an underground explosion and fire that killed at least 274 workers.
The fate of an estimated 120 miners remained unclear in one of Turkey's worst mining disasters.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a foreign trip and visited the mine in Soma, about 155 miles south of Istanbul. The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, officials said.
Mr Erdogan said the incident would be investigated to its "smallest detail" and "no negligence will be ignored". He discussed rescue operations with the authorities, walked near the entrance of the mine and also comforted two crying women. Earlier, Mr Erdogan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half-mast.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time of the explosion and 363 of them had been rescued. Scores were injured, he told reporters in Soma, where he was overseeing operations by more than 400 rescuers.
The last worker rescued alive emerged from the mine at around dawn yesterday. Mr Yildiz said: "Our hopes are diminishing."
Mr Erdogan said there were an estimated 120 workers still inside the mine.
He added: "Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out. That is what we are waiting for."
Tensions were high as hundreds of relatives and miners stood outside the mine. The crowd shouted at officials, including Mr Yildiz, and some wailed each time a body was brought up. A heavy police presence was in place around the mine.
The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside than usual.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company that owns the mine, Soma Holding.
In the capital, Ankara, police dispersed a group who tried to march to the energy ministry to protest over the deaths.
Mr Erdogan warned some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit the government.
Turkey's Labour and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March this year, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.
The country's main opposition party said Mr Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at mines around Soma.
Yesterday, rescue workers emerged at a slow pace from the mine with stretchers carrying bodies covered in blankets.
Authorities said the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution unit.
Mr Yildiz said some of the workers were 460 yards deep inside the mine. News reports said the workers could not use elevators to escape because the explosion had cut off power.
The mine owners said the accident occurred despite the "highest safety measures and constant controls" and added that an investigation was being launched.