Last miner emerges to smiles, cheers

The last miner among about 3 200 trapped two kilometres underground for over 30 hours at Harmony Gold’s Elandsrand mine near Carletonville was rescued on Thursday night.

He was welcomed by Harmony chairperson Patrice Motsepe and by Minerals and Energy Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica.

”I’m very happy,” was all miner Mandis Mantanga managed to utter before being swept away by singing and dancing miners.

The last of the thousands of miners who were trapped underground, some for almost two days, surfaced at around 8.30pm on Thursday.

They sang and danced and hugged their fellow workers before heading home.

Their mood was echoed by Sonjica, who waited at the mine on Wednesday.

”I’m overjoyed. This is an extraordinary achievement and I commend everyone — the workers who remained calm and strong and the rescuers who did their jobs under difficult circumstances,” she said.

”I’m relieved,” said Motsepe, who also spent the day at the mine.

”The critical issue now is to concentrate on identifying what caused the accident and prevent it in future.”

A smiling Harmony Gold general manager Stan Bierschenk said he was excited and happy that the miners came away with only slight injuries, including heatstroke, dehydration and fatigue.

”The human challenge is now over, now the mechanical challenge starts,” he said as clean-up workers and technicians were seen heading down the shaft.

The miners were extracted, about 75 at a time, via a shaft normally used for hauling rocks.

They were trapped at level 73 of the mine — about 2 200m underground — after a pipe fell into the lift shaft and cut the power supply to a lift.

”I’m so tired, it was a long night and day,” said 29-year-old Mbuyi Mqadi, who was greeted with a kiss and hug from her husband Mosa Kibane.

The mother of two said the miners had been waiting patiently underground.

”I just want to tell my family that I’m OK,” said Thabang Mokhethi (40) after almost two days trapped underground.

Negligence allegations

While the miners were happy to return home to a shower and possibly a warm meal, a fight was brewing with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who claimed the accident was due to negligence.

”Negligence allegations are untrue. According to mine safety regulations, the mine shafts have to be inspected once a week, we have complied with the regulations,” said Harmony spokesperson Lizelle du Toit.

”The inspection was supposed to last a day, not the half an hour it took,” said NUM’s national health and safety chairperson Peter Bailey.

Motsepe said on Thursday that the accident should serve as a wake-up call.

”We have to recommit ourselves to re-focus on safety in this country, our safety record both as a company and an industry leave much to be desired,” Motsepe said.

He committed the mine and the company to cooperate with the investigation by the inspector of mines, Thabo Gazi.

Motsepe said it was no longer good enough to just talk about safety.

”We run companies that have an obligation to all constituencies. Shareholders are one of those constituencies but we have an obligation to our employees,” he said.

Sonjica said legislation would be ”tightened up”.

”I wouldn’t call it a crisis given that mining is risky in its nature, so incidents of this kind will occur, but I still think there is room for improvement and to reduce accidents in the mines,” Sonjica said.

Harmony Gold manager Bierschenk said the mine would be closed for several weeks as there was extensive damage to the mine shaft.

He said he was happy that no one had been seriously injured.

”People working in the mining industry, they know that things happen, maybe not always to this extent, but there are days when you’re going to come across a problem and you’re going to spend some time underground.” – Sapa

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