Xiangning: The death toll from the flooding of a massive Chinese coal mine rose to 14 on Thursday as officials were forced to temporarily suspend rescue efforts due to fresh water leaks in the pit.
The hundreds of personnel still searching for 24 workers trapped deep underground since the March 28 accident in north China`s Shanxi province were forced to retreat when water began seeping through a ceiling in the shaft.
The setback further hit hopes that the men could be found, following the rescue earlier this week of 115 of their colleagues from the unfinished Wangjialing mine -- an effort described by officials as a "miracle".
"Pumps are not effective as the submerged area is like a huge swamp," Liu Dezheng, the spokesman for the rescue headquarters, said, according to the state Xinhua news agency.
"Oxygen in the mine is also low, although the gas level is safe," he added.
Liu said the rescuers believed they were about 100 metres (yards) from two areas where the remaining workers could be trapped, but water levels remained quite high, making it tough to implement a large-scale operation.
Cramped conditions and the risk of a gas explosion in the mine have compounded the difficulty in locating the missing workers, with some emergency personnel falling ill.
Liu had already tempered hopes for another miracle rescue late Wednesday at a press conference, saying on the 11th day since the accident, the "upper bounds of survival" were being pushed.
"Everyone knows what that means," he said.
Monday`s rescue of the 115 workers -- some of whom had survived by eating tree bark, sawdust, paper and even coal -- was a rare bit of good news for the coal mining industry, plagued by deadly accidents and a poor safety record.
"Some of the miners are much better," Yuan Tianping, head of the Shanxi Aluminium Plant Hospital where dozens of survivors were being treated, was quoted in the Global Times as saying.
"But some have experienced ups and downs. Their blood pressure is unstable. They need close medical observation and care."
Safety standards are widely flouted in China`s mines in the rush to meet surging coal demand -- source of about 70 percent of the country`s energy.
The flood is the latest deadly accident to embarrass the government, which responded to the routine disasters in recent years with a much-touted campaign to improve safety and shut dangerous mines.
Late on Wednesday, the government ordered regulators to crack down on safety violations in mines and other high-risk work places.
The State Administration of Work Safety said the order was meant to prevent further tragedies in the wake of "many serious accidents”.
Those involved in the rescue effort complained about the mounting difficulties -- including fatigue and the water-logged conditions in the shaft.
"I`m really tired," said Yan Jiansheng, 38, a miner who came from elsewhere in the region to help.
"But we want to work rapidly to get them out. Then we can go home."
One 29-year-old rescuer was hospitalised on Wednesday for extreme fatigue after 10 days of non-stop work, the Global Times reported.
More than 2,600 miners were killed in China last year, according to government figures, although labour activists say the actual numbers are likely far higher.
China has said mine safety is a top priority and claims to have closed thousands of unsafe mines, but deadly accidents have continued unabated.
The disaster at the state-owned Wangjialing colliery in Shanxi, China`s coal-producing heartland, was one of at least five mining accidents last week that left dozens dead or missing.