The governor of the Chinese province where 153 miners have been trapped in a flooded coal mine for almost a week has ordered rescuers to enter the mine by noon Saturday, an official said, while no further signs of life came from underground since tapping was heard the previous day.
Rescuers had cheered Friday after hearing the tapping noises, and possibly shouting. Footage on state-run China Central Television showed them tapping on pipes with a wrench, then cheering and jumping after hearing a response. They lowered pens and paper, along with glucose and milk, down metal pipes to the spot where the tapping was heard.
But nothing new had been heard as of Saturday morning, said Wen Changjin, an official with the news center set up at the site.
"At the request of the governor, as of noon rescuers should go down the shaft, but we're not sure if they will be able to do so by then," he said.
It was not immediately clear what risks rescuers would be taking by entering the Wangjialing mine, where 3,000 rescuers were working nonstop to pump water. Wen said the water level underground had dropped by 5.3 meters as of 6 am Saturday.
Government officials say the mine flooded last Sunday afternoon when workers digging tunnels broke into an old shaft filled with water. But experts said it could still take days to reach the miners - and their survival depended on whether they had decent air to breathe and clean water to drink.
"They're doing probably the only thing they can do, which is to pump water as fast as they possibly can," said David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government.
He said some mines have rescuers trained as divers for cases like this.
"But from the sound of it, there's too much water in this mine and they're not sure where people are."
The flood was one of three coal mine accidents in China within a week. A gas explosion Wednesday in the central province of Henan killed 19 and left 24 trapped, and nine people died Thursday in northwestern Shaanxi province.
Wen said rescuers tapping on the pipes began to hear responses from about 820 feet (250 meters) below ground at about 2 pm.
Rescuer Zhao Chuan told The Associated Press that another rescue team had reported hearing people shouting underground. Wen said officials at the news center had not heard reports of shouting. Zhao was quoted by state-run China Central Television as saying that an iron wire was found tied to a drill rod and rescuers think it may have been attached by one of the trapped miners.
Images of the iron wire showed it had been shaped into a circle, with its ends twisted together.
The signs of possible life gave hope to the miners' relatives.
"I'm so happy to hear the news, and I think everybody is," Tang Yinfeng, whose brother-in-law is trapped, said by phone Friday night from near the mine in the northern province of Shanxi.
"The rescue work is much faster than before. We're grateful for their effort."
Earlier, relatives had complained the work was going too slowly. The 153 workers were believed to be trapped on nine different platforms in the mine, which was flooded with up to 37 million gallons (140,000 cubic meters) of water, the equivalent of more than 55 Olympic swimming pools, state television has reported. Rescuers said four of the platforms were not totally submerged, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
The miners' survival depends on several factors, including how cold and wet they are and how much air is available, said David Creedy, a former mine consultant who now works in China for Sindicatum Carbon Capital.
"Certainly for the current time, a week or so, there's a good chance" of survival, he said.
A preliminary investigation found that the mine's managers ignored water leaks from the abandoned mine before the accident, the State Administration of Work Safety said.
"Water leaks were found numerous times in underground shafts," but the mine's managers "did not take the actions necessary to evacuate people," it said.
The managers also caused overcrowding by assigning extra tunneling crews in a rush to finish work, the agency added.
China's coal mines are the world's deadliest, despite government efforts to reduce fatalities. Most accidents are blamed on failure to follow safety rules or lack of required ventilation, fire controls and equipment.
Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners in China last year, down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record, according to the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety.
Families of the trapped miners waited Friday with a mix of optimism and nerves.
"I saw the news on CCTV and hope he is still alive," said Long Limin, whose brother-in-law is underground.
"But my heart is still heavy because finding a sign of life doesn't mean that he is still alive. The more time passes, the less chance they are alive."