rescued miners 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The last of 3,200 miners trapped for more than 24 hours in a deep mine were brought safely to the surface late Thursday, officials said, ending one of South Africa's biggest-ever rescue operations.
The final workers emerged just after 9 p.m. (2000GMT), according to officials for the mine owner, Harmony Gold Mining Co. The miners became trapped after a pipe of pressurized air exploded and crashed into a shaft, cutting off electricity to the main elevator.
There were no reports of casualties, even though the rescue operation had dragged on for longer than initially expected. Some of those stranded more than a mile (1.5 kilometers) underground had gone down Tuesday for the night shift in the Elandsrand mine.
Joyful reunions were mixed with anger, fear and renewed concern about safety standards in a country that is the world's largest gold producer.
The trapped workers were brought to the surface in a second, smaller cage in another shaft that can hold about 75 miners at a time, about half the normal passenger capacity. Most of the miners who emerged into the blinding sunlight earlier in the day looked dazed and exhausted.
"We nearly died down there," one man yelled as he walked past reporters. "I'd rather leave [the job] than die in the mine."
One large group emerged from the shaft singing traditional songs and stamping their feet with joy despite their exhaustion. They were greeted by a crowd of ululating female miners.
During the ordeal, relatives stood outside the mine's offices, complaining that they had not been given enough information about their loved ones.
"I am very traumatized, exhausted, not knowing what is going on," said Sam Ramohanoe, whose wife, Flora, 31, was among the trapped. "It is very unfair to us, not knowing what is going on with our beloved ones."
The workers had been near a ventilation shaft and were given water and food.
The mine owner and South Africa's minerals and energy minister vowed to improve safety in one of the country's most important industries after the accident prompted allegations the industry cut safety corners and did not properly maintain the mine.
The union threatened unspecified "industrial action" if its safety demands were not met. In a message to mining bosses, it said it would "hit their pockets big time in the near future."
Amelia Soares, spokeswoman for Harmony, said the mine had won a number of safety awards and had never seen any fatal accidents. She said the company was likely to suffer considerable losses in output during the closure caused by the accident.
Elandsrand, a top-producing gold mine in South Africa, would be closed for at least six weeks following the accident, Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said Thursday.
Harmony chairman Patrice Motsepe said "we have to recommit ourselves to refocus on safety in this country; our safety record both as a company and an industry leave much to be desired," according to the South African Press Association.
Harmony's per-share price on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange dropped 2.86 percent at close Thursday, to 74.06 rand (â‚¬7.58; $10.69).
JPMorgan analyst Allan Cooke said the accident would hurt Harmony's earnings, especially if the shaft remains closed for the entire quarter.
Harmony's Elandsrand mine is the third-largest producing gold mine in South Africa. The company said it produces an average of about 1,300 pounds of gold every month.
Motsepe is one of South Africa's top business leaders, among a growing number of black entrepreneurs to have gained prominence since apartheid ended in 1994. Workers groups argue, though, that the opportunities created since the end of white rule are benefiting a small black elite, leaving the majority of blacks - most of the workers toiling in the mines are black - struggling.
The government's push for greater roles for blacks in the economy has included requiring companies here to have significant black ownership and management to qualify for new mining rights.
Government officials also criticized Harmony for not immediately informing them about the crisis.
Minerals and Energy Minister Sonjica said she learned about the early morning accident from the late evening news. She said President Thabo Mbeki also found out from the news bulletin.
"You cannot hide 3,000 people who are trapped under ground," Sonjica told The Associated Press. "I find it very queer, strange that they did that. As to whether they were covering up it is difficult to tell at this point."
Sonjica also said during a visit to the Elandsrand mine at Carletonville - a town in South Africa's mining heartland near Johannesburg - that health and safety legislation would be "tightened up."
Last year, 199 mineworkers died in accidents, mostly rock falls, the government reported in September. One worker was killed last week in a mine adjacent to Elandsrand.
Thabo Gazi, chairman of the Mine Health and Safety Council, a group of government, labor and employer representatives that advises the government and that will investigate the Elandsrand accident, said he had raised concerns with the government that in the effort to ensure maximum profits for minimum costs, safety standards were being compromised.
But Terence Creamer, editor of Engineering News and contributing editor for Mining Weekly, a leading engineering and mining publication, said the mining activity spurred by high prices did not mean safety would be compromised. He said because of the costs associated with accidents and production stoppages, owners of mines that did not have very high yields could not take the risk of bad safety records.