BEIJING — Rescue workers in central China searched Thursday for 88 coal miners who were missing after a gas explosion ripped through a shaft, killing at least 60 others — most by suffocating toxic fumes — in the country's deadliest mine disaster this year.
The blast occurred Wednesday night in the Daping Mine in Henan province, when 446 people were at work, said Sun Huashan, deputy administrator of the State Administration of Work Safety. Some 298 escaped alive, he said.
State television showed rescue workers in orange jumpsuits and hardhats rushing to the scene, holding what appeared to be oxygen canisters and first aid kits.
Photos from the official Xinhua News Agency showed weeping relatives and surviving miners with hands and faces smudged with soot. At least half a dozen ambulances waited at the site as bodies in dark green bags were carried out on stretchers.
Xinhua said 60 miners were confirmed dead and more than 1,000 rescuers were searching for 88 others. Most of the miners whose bodies had been found had died of suffocation in the toxic fumes, it said.
Xinhua said the gas density in the mine's atmosphere shot up from 2 percent to 40 percent in less than three minutes.
"The chances of the workers surviving are rather slim," Sun said at a news conference in Beijing.
The cause of the accident was under investigation, said an official reached by telephone at the Henan Province Coal Mine Safety Inspection Bureau. He refused to give his name.
"This accident exposed many problems in our works, such as that the fundamental facilities of coal mine work are still very weak and many loopholes still exist in our management on work safety," Sun said.
He also suggested that pressure to raise coal production amid Chinese energy shortages might be partly to blame.
The state-owned Daping Mine employs 4,100 people and is located in the Songshan Mountains, about 25 miles southwest of the major industrial city of Zhengzhou.
Bodies of the dead were laid out at the mine offices under green canvas tarps for identification, Xinhua said. It said 20 injured miners were hospitalized, four of them in serious condition.
Chinese President Hu Jintao asked local governments to "spare no effort" in saving the trapped miners, Xinhua reported.
China's coal mines are the world's deadliest, with thousands of deaths reported every year in explosions, underground floods and other accidents often blamed on negligence or lack of safety equipment. Poor ventilation is another common problem.
In a regular report on industrial safety released Thursday, the government said 4,153 people were killed in fires, floods and other accidents in coal mines in the first nine months of this year.
It said that figure was down 13 percent from the same period last year, due largely to a nationwide safety crackdown.