SAVASTEPE, Turkey (AP) — Miner Erdal Bicak believes he knows why so many of his colleagues died in Turkey's worst mining disaster: company negligence.
And he knows one other thing — he's never going back down any mine again.
Bicak, 24, had just ended his shift Tuesday and was making his way to the surface when managers ordered him to retreat because of a problem in the Soma coal mine in western Turkey. Workers gathered in one area to hastily put on gas masks.
"The company is guilty," Bicak told The Associated Press, adding that managers had machines that measure methane gas levels. "The new gas levels had gotten too high and they didn't tell us in time."
The miner also said government safety inspectors never visited the lower reaches of the Soma mine and have no idea of how bad conditions get.
Government and mining officials have insisted, however, that the disaster that killed 301 workers was not due to negligence and the mine was inspected regularly.
Akin Celik, the Soma mine's operations manager, has said thick smoke from the underground fire killed many miners who had no gas masks. High levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide have also been a problem for rescue workers as well.
Bicak, whose leg was badly injured and in a cast, recounted his miraculous escape late Friday while at a candle-lit vigil for Soma victims in the town square of nearby Savastepe.
On Saturday, rescue workers retrieved the bodies of the last two miners missing in the disaster, putting the death toll at 301, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
He said 485 miners escaped or were rescued.
"Until today we had focused on search and rescue efforts. Now we will be focusing on investigations, on what will happen about production," Yildiz said.
"The true cause of the accident will be assessed ... through different dimensions," he added. "There will be lessons to draw for the mining world."
Public anger has surged in the wake of the Soma coal mine fire. Police used tear gas and water cannon Friday to disperse protesters in Soma who were demanding that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government resign.
On Saturday, police increased security in Soma to prevent new protests and detained lawyers who scuffled with police after objecting to identity checks, NTV television reported. The lawyers came to offer legal advice to the victims.
In Istanbul, police using their shields and batons pushed back a small group of protesters trying to leave some coal near a monument at the city's main square, Taksim, in a show of solidarity with the Soma victims, the Dogan news agency reported. Police then used tear gas and water cannon on dozens of other protesters at Taksim and against demonstrators in Ankara, the capital.