More than 1,000 miners safe in S. Africa

Other News Materials 4 October 2007 13:15

( AP ) - More than 1,000 trapped gold miners were rescued during a dramatic all-night operation and efforts gathered speed Thursday to bring hundreds more terrified and exhausted workers to the surface.

About 3,200 miners were trapped a mile underground Wednesday when falling pipe damaged the elevator. By 7 a.m. Thursday ( 1 a.m. EDT), about 1,200 had been rescued, according to a union official.

"The speed at which people are 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.

The miners were trapped slightly more than a mile underground when a column of water pipes fell down an elevator shaft, causing extensive damage to the steel framework and electrical cables. Miners had to be evacuated with a smaller cage in another shaft.Sethiri Thibile, who was in the first batch of miners rescued about 19 hours after the accident, 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 early Wednesday morning. 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.

Rescued miners emerged from the shaft with their faces etched with dust and the lamps on their hardhats still lit.

"We are still all right. I am a bit relieved but very, very hungry," miner Jerry Lepolese said after.

Disgruntled family members stood outside the mine 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 one with our beloved ones."

Deon Boqwana, regional chairman for the union, said there was ventilation for the miners waiting below ground and officials were in contact with the men by a telephone line in the mine.

He said the miners were a little over a mile below the surface in a mine that at some points is about a 1 1/2 miles deep. The mine is outside Carletonville, a town near Johannesburg.

Boqwana said the smaller cage being used to bring miners out can hold about 75 miners at a time. He said it normally takes three minutes to reach the surface but would be slower because rescuers were being careful.

Bailey, the union health chairman, said the miners were "very afraid," hungry and thirsty after being underground for hours.

"Some of these mineworkers started duty on Tuesday evening. It is now Wednesday night and they are still underground," he said.

A spokesman for the union, Lesiba Seshoka, said that 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.

Briggs rejected union criticism about safety conditions, and said the shaft was in very good condition with a lot of new infrastructure.

Senzeni Zokwana, the president of the National Mineworkers Union, 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," said Zokwana.

Harmony Chairman Patrice Motsepe said he had been in the mining business since the 1980s and could not remember an another incident were so many miners had been trapped below ground.

Last year, 199 mineworkers died in accidents, mostly rock falls, the government Mine Health and Safety Council reported in September.