Nie Tingbo's small home is crowded with a dozen anguished relatives. No one has touched the bowls of rice and fried vegetables that a neighbor brought over.
Everyone is waiting anxiously for news of the 37-year-old colliery gas detector, who has been trapped with the 180 mine workers for almost 100 hours since Friday when two pits flooded in eastern Shandong Province.
Nie's wife, Zhang Rongxia, sits motionless on the edge of her bed, tears streaming down her cheeks. "He left home before midday to take the afternoon shift on Friday," she says. "It had been raining for days and the two bridges over the river close to our home were underwater."
Zhang had tried to talk her husband out of going to work. "He always took his job so seriously that he just refused to listen," she said.
An estimated 12.6 million cubic meters of water swept through a 50-meter wide breach in the Wenhe River levee and poured down the Huayuan pit where Nie was working. The adjacent Minggong mine before the breach was blocked early on Sunday.
When the news came in the wee hours on Saturday, Nie's 68-year-old mother collapsed. She lies on her bed attached to an intravenous glucose drip.
Nie Tingbo is her favorite child. She's been living with the couple for years.
Zhang Rongxia visits the mine authorities every day, hoping for the latest news of the rescue operation. Each time she is disappointed.
"They simply say they are 'working on it' and never tell me how," she said. "I just pray the government will help bring my husband home again. He must not abandon me and our child."
Huangpu Tinghua, deputy general manager of Huayuan Mining Co. Ltd, explains they have to pick their words carefully to avoid hurting the families. "Most of them are not ready to face reality yet."
"Reality" means that there is slim chance of the miners emerging alive.
Nie's 11-year-old son refuses to say anything. Most of the time he stares blankly at the scarlet plaque above the door. The four large Chinese characters read "Xing Fu Zhi Jia", or "a happy family".
Most of the families live in the Huayuan community close to the mine.
The tragedy has been an immense blow for the community of 5,500 families: one out of every 50 families has someone trapped down the pit, and some of the victims are related.
"Please, the government must do something to save the workers and the mine," says Wang Kuitao, who escaped from almost 1,000 meters below ground in the Huayuan pit, trekking through chest-deep water. He never went home because his younger brother, an electrician, remains trapped.
Managers at the Huayuan mine have sent 545 employees to counsel the families. This is a tough job because at least 60 family members have been hospitalized with high blood pressure or heart problems.
Hope for the miners is dimming. Experts with the rescue headquarters say it would take about 100 days to drain the floodwater out, even if 5,000 cubic meters is pumped out every hour.
By Tuesday rescuers had brought down the water level in the shaft by more than 20 meters. They are still more than 100 meters from even the nearest 14 miners, who are 208 meters below the surface.
(Xinhua News Agency August 22, 2007)