Rescuers save 1,700 trapped miners
October 4, 2007
Rescue teams working to save 3,200 miners trapped deep underground in a South African gold mine brought 1,700 to the surface on Thursday morning, mine and union officials said.
Harmony said the rescue operation was going smoothly and that a secondary lift was bringing up batches of miners stranded underground when the electricity cable of the main lift was cut in an accident.
But the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said it suspected negligence was behind the accident and vowed to push gold firms to build secondary, or emergency, exits in the mine.
Chief executive officer Graham Briggs said he was confident all the miners would be lifted to the surface in a small elevator at mine near Carletonville, south-west of Johannesburg.
"There have been no injuries or deaths ... It may take as long as 10 hours, the cage is travelling fairly slowly to avoid risks ... I'm very confident all will come out," Briggs said.
Briggs said production at the mine had been halted and would remain shut down until an investigation had been carried out and the damage repaired. Harmony is the world's fifth biggest gold producer.
But the NUM said it suspected that negligence and Harmony's practice of mining 24 hours per day caused the accident.
"We suspect negligence. Because of continuous operations there is no time to make adequate checks," NUM president Senzeni Zokwana told reporters.
Zokwana said emergency exits were needed to give workers an alternative escape route. "The manner of mining is a problem, we want to push the companies to build secondary exits, linked to the neighbouring mine," he said.
The first miners emerged at around 23.30pm GMT, after being trapped 2,2km underground for over 15 hours. Between 150 and 200 women miners were among those trapped.
"I feel happy to be on the surface. it was hot, dusty and I am quite hungry now," said 27-year-old Zandile Sindiwe, as he walked out of the elevator into a cold, windy night.
By 5.20am GMT, 1 350 mineworkers had been brought to the surface and mine officials said they hoped to have the remaining workers above ground by early afternoon.
NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka told the Mail & Guardian Online at 9.30am on Thursday morning that 1,700 miners had been rescued.
"As the union we are very upset and angry at what has happened. The mine needs to be brought to book, you cannot allow an incident like this to happen where 3 000 people are trapped. The minister needs to intervene. This cannot continue and they must be held responsible.”
Another NUM spokesperson said earlier that the miners were trapped in a cramped space where temperatures could reach 30° to 40° Celsius.
The miners were caught after an air pipe broke off and hurtled down the shaft, damaging steelwork and severing an electrical cable carrying power to the main lift, Briggs said.
Air and waterRescuers were in contact with the trapped miners and clean air and water were being pumped down to them, Briggs said. "It's a very serious incident, but it's under control," he added. They were using a smaller lift close to the main elevator.
South African gold mines are the deepest in the world and unions have often criticised companies for not doing enough to ensure workers' safety.
Gold mine operations have come under scrutiny over the past few months following a series of accidents as gold producers mine ever deeper to offset lower production and reap the benefits of a sharply higher bullion price.
Gold output in South Africa, the world's biggest gold producer, has tumbled by over 50% over the past decade, as high-grade mines run out of ore and firms grapple with more difficult and high-cost underground operations.
The government briefly closed an AngloGold Ashanti mine in July after two miners were killed in a rock fall.
Harmony bought the Elandsrand mine and nearby Deelkraal operations from rival AngloGold Ashanti in 2001. At the time production was declining and Harmony saw potential in digging a new mine underneath the old one.
Harmony, which employs around 44,000 people and produced 2,4-million ounces of gold in 2006, expects to complete the new Elandsrand mine by 2011 and to mine it for a further 18 years.