South African gold producer Harmony Gold launched a rescue operation on Wednesday to free 17 miners trapped a mile underground after a fire broke out at its Doornkop mine near Johannesburg, followed by a rock fall.
The company said it had made contact with eight miners who managed to flee to a refuge bay at a depth of 1.7km. The whereabouts of the remaining nine miners was unknown, according to company spokesperson James Duncan.
"The fire was reported to have occurred in a stope adjacent to 192 level haulage [about 1 733m underground] at around 6pm on Tuesday," he said.
"The priority is simultaneously to get the fire under control and to reach the eight that are in the refuge bay and to find the nine who are still unaccounted for … As far as we know, the eight that are in the refuge bay are fine."
Rescue teams were sent underground but access to the affected area was hampered by smoke and a subsequent rock fall, said Duncan.
Operations at Harmony Gold's Doornkop mine had been suspended.
Chief executive Graham Briggs cancelled a presentation he had been due to give at a major industry conference in Cape Town to fly to Johannesburg to oversee the rescue effort.
South Africa's gold mines are the deepest in the world and ranked as some of the most dangerous during the apartheid years.
The government, unions and companies have worked hard to improve safety since the end of white minority rule in 1994. But 112 people were still killed in the mines in 2012, the last full year for which records are available.
At least 82 men – thought to have been illegal miners – died after an underground fire at a Harmony mine in 2009. Most of the victims are said to have suffocated.
All miners carry emergency oxygen packs and rescue bays are equipped with food, water and breathing equipment in the event of prolonged underground entrapment. – Reuters, Sapa