Trapped Australian miners in good humour

They’ve been trapped in a tiny cage nearly a kilometre underground for 10 days, but two Australian gold miners still haven’t lost their sense of humour.

“They call where they are a two-star hotel—they’re the two stars,” said Matthew Gill, manager of the century-old Beaconsfield Gold Mine.

Rescuers drilling a narrow, 16m-long escape tunnel towards the men passed the halfway stage on Friday night, meaning Brant Webb (37) and 34-year-old Todd Russell may have spent their last night pinned in a steel cage by tons of rubble dislodged in an April 25 earthquake.

The miners are waiting for their workmates to drill close enough to them to use hand tools to delicately chip away the last few centimetres of rock.

“They just said: ‘Do it safely’,” Gill said. “They weren’t concerned at the time [taken] at all.”

Webb and Russell have turned into the stars of an unlikely reality television experience where high-profile news anchors, camped in the mine’s parking lot, beam scraps of information about the rescue around the country, despite not being able to talk to the men or allowed into the mine where rescuers are working.

Television viewers and newspaper readers know what they are eating, how they are sleeping, even what music they’re listening to—country and western—on the iPods rescuers pushed through a narrow tube that connects them to the outside world.

Drilling teams have been working round the clock, cutting through solid rock at a rate of 50cm an hour.

Gill has declined to speculate how long it would take to reach the men, saying the final stage of the rescue operation, when miners cut through the last crust of rock using jackhammers and small tools, would take time.

“They realise that everything possible is being done,” Gill said. “They are going through a hell of an ordeal, but they are strong.”

On Thursday night, the men had their first home-cooked meal since their ordeal began.

“Last night they had soup made by their families,” Gill added.
“I believe Todd had chicken and vegetable, and Brant had pumpkin.”

Seventeen men were working the night shift on Tuesday April 25 when a 2,1-magnitude earthquake sent shockwaves through the mine. Fourteen men made it safely to the surface, but Webb, Russell and colleague Larry Knight (44) did not.

The three men were reinforcing the walls and roof of a tunnel when the quake hit and they were buried under a rock fall.

Knight’s body was found two days later as rescuers cleared away the rubble. Webb and Russell, who were working inside a steel safety cage at the end of a hydraulic arm, were trapped inside the cage under tons of rock.

For five days they survived on a single cereal bar and by licking water seeping through the rocks around them, huddled inside the cramped 1,2m by 1,2m cage in 30ºC heat.

Rescuers, who had blasted through 24m of rock from a neighbouring tunnel, discovered they were alive on Sunday when a thermal imaging camera picked up traces of their body heat. By Monday the team had forced a narrow pipe through crevices in the rock through which they pushed supplies including water, vitamins and fresh clothing.

Comforts such as iPods, an inflatable mattress, egg and chicken sandwiches and even ice lollipops followed.

The good humour of the men, both married with three children, has amazed the rescue team. One of the men asked for a newspaper to be pushed through the pipe so he could start scanning the classified ads for another job, Gill said. Another wanted to be out by Saturday so he could play for his local football team.

With attention focused on the rescue, the issue of mine safety has not yet come to the fore.

Compared with other countries, Australia has a strong mine-safety record. After the deaths of 16 West Virginia coal miners earlier this year, United States labor leaders and experts held up Australia as a possible model for reforms.

According to the Minerals Council of Australia, a trade association that represents 85% of Australian mining companies, fatalities are on a downward trend. Nineteen miners were killed in 1999-2000, and 10 in the fiscal year ending June 30 2005. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal and the country is dotted with mines extracting everything from uranium to diamonds.

The US Bureau of Labour Statistics reported 152 fatalities in mining and oil and natural-gas extraction in 2004. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration reported 25 deaths in coal mine accidents that year.—Sapa-AP

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