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Rescuers save 1,950 trapped gold miners

Johannesburg, October 4, 2007

Around 1,250 miners remained trapped more than a mile underground in a South African gold mine on Thursday after an all-night rescue mission.

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

Stranded when the electricity cable of the mine's main lift was severed in an accident, the miners were being brought up in small lift slowly to avoid risks, mining officials said.

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 heading to their hostel accommodation. At least one worker had to be treated by paramedics for dehydration.

Mine owner Harmony Gold said the rescue operation was going smoothly and those underground were being pumped clean air and water. By 1000 GMT, 1,950 mineworkers of the 3,200 originally stranded had been rescued.

"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".

Production at the mine was halted and would remain shut until an investigation had been completed and damage repaired, Briggs said. Harmony is the world's fifth biggest gold producer.

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.

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.

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, expressed serious concerns about "elements of negligence" in mining.

"I would not call it a crisis because mining is risky by nature. But I still think there is room for improvement," Sonjica told reporters at the Elandsrand mine on Thursday.

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.

"I feel happy to be on the surface. It was hot, dusty and I am quite hungry now," said 27-year-old  Zandile Sindiwe.- Reuters  




Tags: South Africa | miners | rescue |

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