South African mine rescue underway

A miner looks around Oct. 4, 2007, as he gets out of the cage being used to evacuate workers who became trapped a day earlier in the Elandsrand gold mine near Carletonville, South Africa.
A miner looks around Oct. 4, 2007, as he gets out of the cage being used to evacuate workers who became trapped a day earlier in the Elandsrand gold mine near Carletonville, South Africa.
Elansrand gold mining complex
Elansrand gold mining complex

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA  (AP) -- More than 1,500 trapped gold miners have been 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 Wednesday when a pressurized air pipe snapped and tumbled down a shaft, causing extensive damage to steel work and an elevator, said the mine's chief operating officer, Alwin Pretorius.

Most of the workers were stranded a kilometer and a half -- or one mile -- underground and had to be brought to the surface in a second, smaller cage in another shaft. About 340 are farther down in the shaft, which has a total depth of 3,100 meters, or 10,230 feet.

Sethiri Thibile, one of the first miners rescued, 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 5 a.m. Wednesday. 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.

One miner, who did not wish to give his name, said that conditions underground are deteriorating. He said the men were trapped in a confined area rank with the odors of urine and feces.

By 9 a.m. Thursday, more than 1,500 had been rescued from Harmony Gold Mining Co.'s Elandsrand Mine, the company said.

General manager Stan Bierschenk said that while morale is low underground, miners perked up as soon as they were rescued. He said most complained of heat exhaustion and fatigue.

There were no injuries and there was no immediate danger to any of the workers, company and union officials said.

"The speed which people 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 are 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.

Bierschenk said the company hoped to complete the rescue by lunchtime. Spokeswoman Amelia Soares said the Elandsrand mine would be closed while officials investigate the cause of the accident.

As dawn broke over Carltonville, a town near Johannesburg in the country's mining heartland, there were scenes of relief and despair.

A woman put her arm around her sobbing daughter, who was apparently distraught at the lack of news about her husband.

Disgruntled family members stood outside the mine offices, complaining that they had not been given enough information about their loved ones trapped underground.

"I am very traumatized, exhausted, not knowing what is going on," said Sam Ramohanoe, whose wife, Flora, 31, was among the trapped miners. He said the family members had to force the company to send a management official to talk to them.

"It is very unfair to us not knowing what is going on with our beloved ones," he said.

Senzeni Zokwana, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, 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. ... We are extremely lucky up to now that nobody has been injured," said Zokwana.

A spokesman for the union, Lesiba Seshoka, said 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.

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

Company spokeswoman Soares said the mine had never had any fatal accidents and had won a number of safety awards. She said the company was likely to suffer considerable loss in output during the closure, but was unable to give a precise estimate, saying that attention for now was concentrated on the rescue operation.

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

South Africa is the world's largest producer of gold as well as a number of other minerals. Government statistics from 2005 said 55 different minerals were produced from 1,113 mines and quarries, of which 45 produced gold.

Harmony's Elandsrand mine is the third largest producing gold mine in South Africa. The company said it produces an average of about 600 kilograms of gold every month.

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

Posted by KO

The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.