ELANDSRAND MINE, South Africa (Reuters) - The last of 3,200 miners trapped deep in a South African mine shaft was saved on Thursday, capping a day-long rescue mission that began with fears of the worst and ended in wild celebrations.
Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica was among those who danced and sang when an exhausted Mandis Mandanga, 57, walked out of Harmony Gold’s Elandsrand gold mine outside of Johannesburg at 1838 GMT.
“I am overjoyed. It was an extraordinary achievement saving 3,200 people,” Sonjica said, as paramedics treated Mandanga for exhaustion and dehydration.
Mandanga said: “It was very hot and I am tired, but I am okay now.”
His ordeal began late Wednesday night when an electricity cable to the mine’s main lift was severed, stranding the mine’s workforce, which included an estimated 200 women.
They were stuck in a cramped space in the mine, where temperatures were believed at times to have reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
The accident prompted the government to order Harmony Gold, the world’s fifth biggest gold miner, to shut down operations at the mine for six weeks.
Jeanneth Makamu, exhausted and wearing dusty green overalls, said she had spent much of the time underground thinking about her family. Her husband, who also works at the mine, escaped the accident.
“I was worried for my two children and my husband Steven. I met him as I came in the morning shift and he was walking out (after a nightshift),” said Makamu.
As she and others emerged from 2.2 km (1.4 miles) underground they were handed food packages before they headed to their hostel accommodation. The miners were brought up slowly in a small lift to avoid risks, mining officials said.
Harmony Gold said clean air and water had been pumped to the workers while they were underground.
Both the company and the mining union said better safety standards were needed at the mine near Carletonville, southwest of Johannesburg. Company chairman Patrice Motsepe described the accident as a “wake up call to all of us”.
Production at the mine was halted shortly after the accident.
Sonjica, who visited a mine operated by AngloGold Ashanti this week where four workers died in a rock fall, ordered the Carletonville operation be shut down for six weeks.
“The mine must be closed until the shaft is repaired to give us certainty that the situation is safe,” Sonjica told Reuters.
The miners were trapped when an air pipe broke off and hurtled down the shaft, damaging steelwork and severing an electrical cable carrying power to the main lift, said Graham Briggs, Harmony’s acting chief executive.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) blamed poor safety standards and Harmony’s practice of mining 24 hours a day.
“We suspect negligence. Because of continuous operations there is no time to make adequate checks,” NUM President Senzeni Zokwana told reporters.
Harmony dismissed the allegations of negligence, although Motsepe said additional measures were needed to protect workers.
“Our safety records both as a company and as a country leave much to be desired,” he told reporters.
South African gold mines are the deepest in the world, and unions have often criticised companies for not doing enough to ensure workers’ safety.
Gold mine operations have come under scrutiny over the past few months after a series of accidents. Companies are mining ever deeper to reach remaining seams and reap the benefits of a sharply higher world bullion price.