More than 20 illegal miners die in fire

Johannesburg, South Africa

23 DIE IN UNDERGROUND FIRE

An underground fire has claimed the lives of 23 miners illegally working an unused shaft of the St Helena Mine, in Welkom, Free State police said on Sunday.

Their bodies were discovered on Sunday morning and brought to the surface by colleagues arrested when the fire forced them to leave the mine on Tuesday, said Superintendent Motantsi Makhele.

He said 120 illegal miners were arrested when they made their way out of the mine on Tuesday. They have since appeared in court on a charge of trespassing.

A group of them returned to the mine on Sunday to look for colleagues who were still missing.

They brought eight bodies to the surface at 11.30am. Another 15 bodies were later recovered. All were taken to the state mortuary in Welkom.

Makhele said Welkom detectives had opened inquest dockets. ”Some of these bodies can still be identified, while others were already beyond recognition due to the period they spent underground,” he said. ”Post-mortems will be conducted on them, as well as some forensic tests on those which can’t be identified.”

The bodies will be available for viewing at the mortuary from Tuesday.

Provincial police Commissioner Amon Mashigo said that, as illegal miners, the workers have no records and are possibly from neighbouring countries including Lesotho and Mozambique.

President Thabo Mbeki ordered a safety review on Friday of all South Africa’s mines after a successful operation to rescue thousands of workers who were trapped underground.

A statement from his office said Mbeki had called on Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica to conduct an across-the-board audit following the accident at a gold mine near Johannesburg on Wednesday that left 3 200 miners stuck 2km below the surface for up to a day-and-a-half.

”President Mbeki said that the collective effort demonstrated in the rescue effort is testimony to a true South African spirit,” the statement read. ”Furthermore, the president has asked the minister to conduct an audit of all the mines to determine whether they meet health and safety standards as prescribed in law.” — Sapa

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