Rescuers in race against time to free trapped miners at Orkney mine

07 December 2019 - 12:48
Four workers remain trapped underground after a rockfall at the Tau Lekoa mine in Orkney in the Free State. File photo.
Image: 123RF/tomas1111 Four workers remain trapped underground after a rockfall at the Tau Lekoa mine in Orkney in the Free State. File photo.

As more than 100 rescue workers try to burrow their way into the heart of the collapsed Tau Lekoa mine in Orkney to free four trapped mineworkers, it has been revealed that the last time there was communication with the workers was late Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Mineworkers has claimed that a dangerous attempt to mine natural support pillars may have led to the rockfall that trapped the workers from midday on Friday.

The owners of the North West gold mine, Village Main Reef Ltd, released a statement on Friday afternoon announcing that the four workers had been trapped underground.

“Five workers were trapped by fallen rock in a working place some 1,350 metres below surface, following two seismic events — one measuring 2.3 and another 2.1 — at the mine early this (Friday) afternoon,” the statement read.

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While one worker was rescued and hospitalised with serious injuries, the four others were still trapped inside, with no updates on Saturday morning on how long it could take to get to the buried chamber where they were trapped.

NUM president Joseph Montisetse spoke to TimesLIVE on Saturday morning after a lengthy briefing with the mine’s NUM representatives and company officials, and painted a bleak picture of the current situation.

He said he had received information that the workers had been mining the natural support pillars within the mine shaft, and had failed to conduct a process known as “backfilling” to create new artificial support pillars out of rocks and cement.

“This is very dangerous, of course, and we understand that the mine had chosen not to do the backfilling because it is too expensive,” he said.

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He said it was also unclear if another escape route had been mined from the chamber at all, or whether it had simply also been barricaded by the rockfall.

He said that after the collapse, at least four rescue teams from other nearby mines were immediately summoned to assist in trying to break through to the chamber holding the four miners.

While rescue workers were in touch with the workers throughout Friday afternoon, Montisetse said that at around 5pm they received a distressing message that the group was not doing well.

“One of them said they were suffocating and wanted oxygen, but that was the last they (rescue workers) heard,” he said.

The rescue teams had hoped that they would be able to create some form of ventilation, but that it was believed the rocks had barricaded the ventilation shafts as well.

Meanwhile, workers had another setback late on Friday night, where a ground collapse prevented them from going further. “They had to start from scratch,” said Montisetse.

On Saturday morning, Village Reef spokesperson James Duncan confirmed the rescue efforts were still under way, with at least 100 rescue workers still working around the clock to try to rescue the four workers.

When asked about NUM’s allegations regarding potentially dangerous mining of the support pillars in the mine, he said the company would not comment on such allegations until a full investigation had taken place to determine the cause of the collapse.

TimesLIVE reported in 2017 that a similar incident occurred that year at the same mine, where four mineworkers were also killed. Montisetse confirmed the incident and said the union was concerned about safety practices at the mine.