Rescue op underway to free 3,200 workers from S. African mine

Miners stranded a kilometer and a half underground after a broken pipe tumbles down a shaft and damages an elevator.

October 4, 2007 09:25
3 minute read.
Rescue op underway to free 3,200 workers from S. African mine

SA mine 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

More than 1,000 exhausted workers have emerged from a South African gold mine during a tense all-night operation to free 3,200 miners trapped after a broken pipe tumbled down a shaft and damaged an elevator. The miners were left stranded a kilometer and a half - or one mile - underground Wednesday morning and had to be brought to the surface in a second, smaller cage in another shaft. By 7 a.m. Thursday, about 1,200 had been rescued, according to a union official. "The speed which people coming up has improved. It is no longer a snail's pace," said Peter Bailey, health and safety chairman for the National Mineworkers Union. He said all those who were rescued were in good health, even though many had been underground for 28 hours. "They are very, very stressed and tired and very relieved to be out," Bailey said. There were no injuries and there was no immediate danger to any of the workers in Harmony Gold Mining Co.'s Elandsrand Mine, company and union officials said. A company official, Lizelle du Toit, said the rescue attempt involved the largest number of trapped miners in South African history and said it should be wrapped up by lunchtime. She told South African radio that paramedics were underground to help those who still remained. The miners were trapped when a hydraulic pressure pipe blew out. Harmony Chief Operating Officer Alwin Pretorius said the pipe fell and probably caused extensive damage to the steel work and electrical cables in the shaft. Miners had to be evacuated with a smaller cage in another shaft. Sethiri Thibile, one of the first miners rescued, clutched a cold beef sandwich and a bottle of water he was given when he reached the surface. "I was hungry, though we were all hungry," said Thibile, 32, an engineering assistant who had been underground since 5 a.m. Wednesday. He said there was no food or water in the mine. "Most of the people are scared and we also have some women miners there underground," said Thibile. One miner, who did not wish to give his name, said that conditions underground were deteriorating. He said the men were trapped in a confined area that stunk of urine and feces. As dawn broke over Carltonville, a town near Johannesburg in the country's mining heartland, there were scenes of relief and despair. A woman put her arm around her sobbing daughter, who was apparently distraught at the lack of news about her husband. Disgruntled family members stood outside the mine offices, complaining that they had not been given enough information about their loved ones trapped underground. "I am very traumatized, exhausted, not knowing what is going on," said Sam Ramohanoe, whose wife, Flora, 31, was among the trapped miners. He said the family members had to force the company to send a management official to talk to them. "It is very unfair to us not knowing what is going on with our beloved ones," he said. Senzeni Zokwana, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, said the accident should be a wake-up call for the industry. "We are very much concerned. We believe that this should be a call to the industry that secondary exits underground be mandated. ... We are extremely lucky up to now that nobody has been injured," said Zokwana. A spokesman for the union, Lesiba Seshoka, said the mine was not properly maintained. "Our guys there tell us that they have raised concerns about the whole issue of maintenance of shafts with the mine (managers) but they have not been attended to," he said. Acting Chief Executive Graham Briggs rejected union criticism about safety conditions, and said the shaft was in very good condition with a lot of new infrastructure. Last year, 199 mineworkers died in accidents, mostly rock falls, the government Mine Health and Safety Council reported in September. South Africa is the world's largest producer of gold as well as a number of other minerals. Government statistics from 2005 said 55 different minerals were produced from 1,113 mines and quarries, of which 45 produced gold. Harmony's Elandsrand mine is the third largest producing gold mine in South Africa. The company said it produces an average of about 600 kilograms of gold every month. Harmony Chairman Patrice Motsepe said he had been in the mining business since the 1980s and could not remember another incident in which so many miners had been trapped below ground.

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