- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2007

CARLETONVILLE, South Africa (AP) — The last of 3,200 gold miners trapped for more than 24 hours in a deep shaft were brought safely to the surface today, ending one of South Africa’s biggest rescue operations, mining officials said.

The final workers emerged just after 9 p.m., singing and dancing, according to the Harmony Gold Mining Co. No casualties were reported.

A pressurized air pipe snapped at the mine near Johannesburg and tumbled down a shaft yesterday, causing extensive damage to an elevator and stranding the miners.

The rescue operation had dragged on longer than expected. Some of those stranded more than a mile underground had gone down Tuesdsay for the night shift.

The 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 miners were brought to the surface in a smaller cage in another shaft that can hold about 75 miners at a time. Most of the miners who emerged into the blinding sunlight 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.”

Sethiri Thibile, who was in the first batch of miners to be rescued about 19 hours after the accident, said there had been no food or water in the mine.

“I was hungry, though we were all hungry,” said Thibile, 32, an engineering assistant who had been underground since early yesterday morning. He was given a cold beef sandwich and a bottle of water when he reached the surface.

“Most of the people are scared and we also have some women miners there underground,” he said.

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.

Relatives had complained to mine operators 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, had been among the trapped. “It is very unfair to us, not knowing what is going one with our beloved ones.”

Officials had hoped to rescue all the trapped miners by lunchtime, but it ended up taking hours longer. Deon Boqwana, regional chairman for the National Union of Mineworkers, said the smaller cage being used to bring them out normally takes three minutes to reach the surface, but it was operated at a slower speed because officials were taking extra precautions.

Peter Bailey, the union’s chairman for health and safety, said rescuers did not want to put too much pressure on the elevator. It was also going slower because of problems with the electrical supply installed for the rescue, officials said. By the afternoon, the cage was coming up every 30 minutes, rather than every 15 minutes as it had earlier in the day.

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 didn’t properly maintain the mine.

The union threatened to strike 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.”

“When it comes to production targets, the companies make no mistakes in meeting them, but when it comes to safety, we hear rhetoric and philosophy,” Bailey said.

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, but was unable to give a precise estimate, saying that attention for now was concentrated on the rescue operation.

“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,” Harmony chairman Patrice Motsepe said, according to the South African Press Association.

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 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 Buyelwa 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.

Sonjica 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.

Associated Press Writer Clare Nullis contributed to this report in Cape Town.


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