Police in China have detained seven people suspected of hiding the bodies of dozens of gold miners killed in an explosion and are searching for the mine’s owner, media reports and police officials said Tuesday.
Investigators believe the bodies were hidden to conceal the death toll in the June 22 blast in Xinzhou, in northern China’s Shanxi province, the Associated Press reports. The owner originally reported only two miners died and four were injured in the blast, saying 34 others had escaped unharmed.
But authorities have recovered the bodies of 36 miners so far, An Yuanjie, a spokeswoman from the State Administration for Work Safety Supervision, reportedly said. Bodies were found several miles away from the mine.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the seven had been detained for “attempting to cover up evidences of a fatal gold mine explosion by hiding away dead bodies.” Xinhua did not further identify the detainees, the AP reports. A spokeswoman for the Xinzhou police department said people had been detained, but declined to give details.
The mine’s owner is believed to be on the run, a police official from Fanzhi county, which includes Xinzhou, reporedtly said.
“We are making every effort to find and arrest him,” said the man, who gave only his surname, Li. Xinhua and newspapers said police also wanted to arrest the fugitive mine foreman.
The blast occurred after an electrical fire ignited a cache of explosives, the AP reported. State media say miners had been ordered to keep working while flames raged around them.
Forty miners were believed to have been in the mine when the explosion occurred, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The state newspaper Huashang News, published in the western city of Xi’an, said 117 were present during the fire and 46 died.
Bodies were in four locations about six miles from the Yixingzhai gold mine, the news agency said. Most of the miners were from a farming community in neighboring Shaanxi province.
The mine has since been shut down and some 4,000 miners dispersed, the official China Youth Daily reported. Authorities have pledged harsh punishments for those responsible for the coverup, it said.
Explosions occur frequently in Chinese mines, which often lack ventilators and other basic safety equipment. The government says 3,393 people have been killed this year in China’s mines, including 115 who perished in a northeastern coal mine explosion last month blamed on negligence and faulty ventilation equipment.
Authorities have promised to shut down mines where deadly accidents occur and punish their operators, giving owners an incentive to conceal deaths.