Eight S.African miners rescued, hunt goes on for missing nine

by Reuters
Wednesday, 5 February 2014 20:33 GMT

* Miners trapped a mile underground by rock fall, fire

* Harmony Gold CEO oversees rescue effort at Doornkop mine (Updates with continuing rescue search, fire quelled)

By Zandi Shabalala

DOORNKOP, South Africa, Feb 5 (Reuters) - South African emergency workers rescued eight miners trapped a mile underground by a fire and rock fall in Harmony Gold's Doornkop mine but a search went on for nine others still unaccounted for more than a day later.

Rescue teams battled through smoke and debris at a depth of 1,700 metres (5,600 feet) to reach the eight on Wednesday. The miners, who were all unharmed, had managed to flee to a refuge bay equipped with a telephone and other survival items.

"Rescue teams continue the search for the remaining nine miners who are still unaccounted for. The underground fire has been subdued, although conditions underground remain challenging," Harmony Gold said in a statement.

All operations other than essential services remained suspended, the company added.

Chief Executive Graham Briggs cancelled a presentation at a major industry conference in Cape Town to fly to Johannesburg to oversee the rescue effort at the mine, 30 km (20 miles) west of the city.

"There were 139 underground and 35 people in the affected area," Briggs told journalists at the mine. "All of the (rescued) miners walked quite comfortably when they came out. They are under observation for the next 24 hours."

The National Union of Mineworkers said the fire broke out on Tuesday evening after an earthquake damaged ventilation and water pipes as well as power cables.

"The damage to the electric cables triggered the fire underground, which is still burning," it said in a statement.

South Africa's gold mines are the deepest in the world and were ranked as some of the most dangerous during the apartheid era. Since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, the government, unions and companies have worked hard to improve safety, but 112 people were still killed in 2012, the last year for which records are available.

Tumi Mokgele, a Doornkop miner who was at ground level when the accident happened, said the incident highlighted the need to increase wages for workers and vindicated those who have gone on strike in the country's platinum belt.

"Then you say the 12,500 rand (wage hike) that we want is a lot. It's small," Mokgele told Reuters.

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 believed to have died of suffocation.

All miners carry emergency oxygen packs and rescue bays are equipped with food, water and breathing equipment in the event of prolonged underground entrapment. ($1 = 11.1715 South African rand) (Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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