Over 60 illegal miners die in South African mine fire

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Over 60 miners were killed in an abandoned gold mine shaft near Welkom, in the Free State province of South Africa, after a fire broke out inside the mine.

36 bodies from the Harmony Gold mining company Eland mine shaft were brought up earlier on the weekend from depths up to 1.4 kilometers (1 mi). On Tuesday, 25 more bodies were recovered by other illegal workers.

“We suspect there was a fire on the 18th of May. We never saw any smoke. Over the weekend [30 May] we were informed by other illegal miners that people had died,” said Tom Smith, Chief Operating Officer for Harmony’s South Region, “The bodies are not burnt. It seems more of a case of gas or smoke inhalation. I don’t know if there are any more bodies down there, we just have to wait.”

The workers may have died from poisonous gasses, smoke inhalation, suffocation, cave-ins or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Harmony gold mine will not send anyone in to the mine as the conditions are extremely dangerous and abandoned shafts are without safety equipment. Illegal workers may gain access bypassing security at one mine site, and exit via a series of interconnected underground tunnels many miles away.

Harmony is internationally the fifth largest gold mining company and has bought up old, abandoned mines.

Police were seeking relatives to help identify the bodies, and are instigating an investigation into the circumstances.

Almost 300 “gold pirates” were arrested over the past two weeks at the Eland mine shaft alone. Thousands of illegal workers can be underground, and remain working for weeks and months continuously. “These are ex-miners and unemployed people – we need to target the syndicates,” said Smith.

There are over 4.18 million unemployed in South Africa due to the economic decline, and another 1 million may soon join the ranks.

Susan Shabangu, the minister of mining, extended her condolences.

Welkom, with a population of over 400,000 is located 160 kilometers (99 mi) northeast of Bloemfontein, the provincial capital.

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