As rescue efforts were temporarily halted on Monday, family members of the illegal gold miners trapped for nearly a week in a Langlaagte mine shaft heard reports that one miner may have already died.
Officials could not confirm the death at the time of publishing. Three of the miners arrested on Monday reportedly told emergency services officials that one of their colleagues had died underground.
It was a tense day as officials waited for the carbon monoxide levels to subside inside the shaft so the mining rescue services team could continue its work. A distraught mother wailed in the crowd, calling her son’s name, “Njabulo”.
He had not returned after being trapped since last week in the abandoned mine shaft, along with an unknown number of other unauthorised miners. Rescue operations had to be halted on Sunday afternoon after rescue workers from the Gauteng Emergency Services encountered smoke and fire during their mission and returned empty-handed.
Community members, including friends and family of trapped miners, looked on as several illegally operating miners emerged from the shaft. Three of the miners who resurfaced were immediately taken into custody by the police, who did not confirm if the men had been formally charged.
But family members, including a woman holding a baby, who had been waiting for hours for the men to return, screamed and wailed as the men were taken away in a police van.
The George Harrison Park is a national heritage site and the abandoned gold mine has been an increasingly popular site for hundreds of so-called zama zamas, according to mining researcher Chris Molebatsi of the Bench Marks Foundation.
The shaft, which takes about two hours to descend, is said to lead to various passages and tunnels that are too small for rescue workers to enter into with their equipment, which includes a breathing apparatus. It is in these unsafe tunnels that the remaining miners are said to be trapped. While authorities believe about five miners are trapped in the smoke-filled shaft, it has been impossible to verify an exact number. As time passed, the crowd grew increasingly agitated.
“They cannot go in there with all that equipment because those holes are very small. They must just let us go in and we will find them and bring them back,” shouted one angry miner in isiZulu.
Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane arrived in the afternoon to assess the situation. He told media the rescue mission had been halted until officials could determine whether it was safe to continue.
“The situation is not conducive to rescue operations currently as there is fire and smoke in the tunnels.
“We have therefore stopped the mission and have requested the families and everybody that are here to work with us once it recommences,” said Zwane.