Day of drama for illegal miners

HEAVY WORK. Ekurhuleni Emergency Services remove a large rock blocking the entrance to the mine whilst trying to free a large group of illegal miners from a disused mine yesterday. Picture: Neil McCartney.

A group of 11 illegal miners were brought to safety yesterday after being trapped underground at an abandoned mine in Benoni on the East Rand for more than 24 hours.

The group trapped is believed to be close to 30, but by yesterday evening it seemed the rest of the group did not want to come out of the shaft because they would face arrest. All the miners brought to the surface have been arrested.

The 11 miners were having a medical assessment. No injuries have been reported, said ER24 spokesman Werner Vermaak.

The drama in a veld between the CBD and McKenzie Park in Benoni unfolded after the group of illegal miners were robbed of “their” gold and forced back into an illegal opening made to gain access to a long-abandoned ventilation shaft.

Rescue teams, paramedics, mine security and police descended on the area after a man standing randomly in the veld was questioned by Ekurhuleni Metropolitan police officers checking the area for illegal dumping at about 10am yesterday.

“He told officers that his friends were trapped underground by a rival mining gang, who had stolen ‘their’ gold,” Ekurhuleni disaster management spokesman Rodgers Mamaila said at the scene.

“They forced them back into the hole the miners had made to enter or exit, and threw rubble into it, trapping the miners inside. The informant said they had been trapped since Saturday.”

Mamaila described the opening as a vertical shaft of up to eight metres in depth, which then slanted off at an acute angle for hundreds of metres.

“The problem is we have around 30 miners trapped under what appears to be two concrete blocks, thrown down the shaft,” Mamaila said.

Rescuers established communication with the trapped miners about midday through a small gap in the rubble. All the men seemed to be in good health, Mamaila said, but they “complained of hunger and thirst”.

The gap was just big enough to pass through two-litre bottles of water.

Mamaila said rescuers faced a tense and difficult task as the concrete blocks seemed to be wedged side-by-side in the shaft, which measured less than 1.5m².

“There is the possibility that if we remove one block, the other might fall and cause serious injury or death to those trapped underneath,” Mamaila said.

He added that many more miners were alleged to be further down the shaft, the “usual” reported numbers ranging between 200 and 300.

“A rock rolling down a shaft could very possibly kill or injure miners further down,” he said.

Rescue teams, however, secured chains around one block and pulled it out using a tripod rigging and winch system placed over the hole, while the second block remained stable.

They then found a large, triangular slab of concrete, allegedly also thrown down the shaft, wedged in the makeshift shaft and which very well may have saved the group from death or serious injury, Mamaila said.

Rescue teams began chipping a hole in the slab big enough for a human being to fit through, a process which took at least an hour.

By 6.30pm, Ekuhuleni disaster management spokesman William Ntladi confirmed that rescue teams had penetrated the slab and that the miners were starting to climb out using a ladder.

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