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Rescuers save 2,350 trapped S African gold miners

Some 850 miners remained trapped more than a mile underground in a South African gold shaft on Thursday after a day-long rescue effort.
Reuters | By James Macharia, Elandstrand Mone, South Africa
UPDATED ON OCT 04, 2007 10:25 PM IST

Some 850 miners remained trapped more than a mile underground in a South African gold shaft on Thursday after a day-long rescue effort.

The last of the 3,200 stranded when the electricity cable of the mine's main lift was severed were expected to be lifted out by 1800 GMT, nearly 36 hours after the accident.

Up to 200 women were among those who were stuck in a cramped space in the mine where temperatures could reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

The accident at the Elandsrand mine prompted the government to order Harmony Gold, the world's fifth biggest gold miner, to shut down operations at the mine for six weeks.

Jeanneth Makamu, exhausted and wearing dusty green overalls, said she had spent much of the time underground thinking about her family. Her husband, who also works at the mine, escaped the accident.

"I was worried for my two children and my husband Steven. I met him as I came in the morning shift and he was walking out (after a nightshift)," said Makamu.

As she and others emerged from 2.2 km (1.4 miles) underground they were handed food packages before they headed to their hostel accommodation.

At least one worker had to be treated by paramedics for dehydration. The miners were brought up slowly in a small lift to avoid risks, mining officials said.

"It was hot and I am tired. We were just sitting and sleeping. We were angry because there was no food and no water," said George Mwalusi, 46, who said he makes about 2,500 rand ($361) a month.

Harmony Gold said the rescue operation was going smoothly and those underground were being pumped clean air and water.

"It's a very serious incident, but it's under control," Harmony Chief Executive Officer Graham Briggs told Reuters.

The mine's general manager, Stan Bierschenk, said the morale of workers still stuck below ground was "fairly brittle".

Both the company and the mining union said better safety standards were needed at the pit near Carletonville, southwest of Johannesburg. Company chairman Patrice Motsepe described the accident as a "wake up call to all of us".

Deepest in world

Production at the mine was halted shortly after the accident.

Minister of Minerals and Energy Buyelwa Sonjica, who this week visited a mine operated by AngloGold Ashanti where four workers were killed in a rock fall, ordered the mine closed for six weeks.

"The mine must be closed until the shaft is repaired to give us certainty that the situation is safe," Sonjica told Reuters at the mine. "So, it will be closed for six weeks and we will monitor the kind of repair before it can reopen."

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.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) blamed poor safety standards and Harmony's practice of mining 24 hours a day.

"We suspect negligence. Because of continuous operations there is no time to make adequate checks," NUM President Senzeni Zokwana told reporters.

Harmony dismissed the allegations of negligence although Motsepe said additional measures were needed to protect workers. "Our safety records both as a company and as a country leave much to be desired," he told reporters.

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 after a series of accidents. Companies are mining ever deeper to reach remaining seams and reap the benefits of a sharply higher bullion price.

Relatives of miners waited outside the pit. "I prepared a a nice meal for him," said Matsietsi Letsoenyo, hoping her husband would emerge soon.

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