‘Movement’ detected at South African mine where dozens presumed dead, but no search operation yet

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) – South African authorities have detected underground “movement” at a closed gold mine where they believe at least 31 illegal miners died in a suspected gas explosion last month , which raises the very remote possibility that there are survivors , officials said.

Officials also said it was likely there were more illegal miners underground than initially thought and the death toll would be higher than 31.

But a search operation at the disused Virginia gold mine in the central town of Welkom has not yet been launched due to dangerously high levels of methane still present in the mine, meaning there could be more explosions.

“As things stand, it’s rather difficult,” Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy spokesman Nathi Shabangu told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Shabangu said the government department was working with a team of inspectors from the company that previously operated the mine as well as mine rescue services to determine if the detected underground activity is “human movement”.

Authorities only announced last week that they suspected dozens of illegal miners had died in the mine on May 18 and their bodies were still underground. They were still re-enacting the incident.

Fatal accidents involving illegal miners often go unreported in South Africa because survivors are reluctant to contact authorities as they could be arrested. The incident at the Welkom mine was also complicated by the fact that the illegal miners come from the neighboring country of Lesotho, and it took weeks for their families to report their disappearance to the authorities in Lesotho and for those authorities to contact their South African counterparts.

Illegal miners take food, water, and other supplies with them because they expect to stay underground for a while.

But given that the explosion was believed to have happened more than a month ago, the chances of there being any survivors are slim and the Department of Mineral Resources could not confirm any movements detected earlier. to have more information, Shabangu said.

A spokeswoman for the company that previously operated the mine, Harmony Gold, said on Monday that methane levels in the mine meant that “we are not currently allowing anyone to go there”. She said it was too dangerous right now for a search. and the rescue team to enter the mine.

Illegal gold mining is rampant in South Africa, where groups of men travel to mines that are no longer commercially viable in the hope of enriching themselves by finding abandoned deposits. Illegal mining carries high risks and fatal incidents are quite common.

One of the worst also occurred in Welkom in 2009, when 82 miners, mostly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho, died after inhaling poisonous gas following a fire in a disused mine shaft. another gold mine in the city.

On Monday, South Africa’s Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe visited Welkom and said it was likely that there were “more than 31” dead in the latest incident.

Mantashe said initial investigations showed last month’s explosion at the mine, which was closed in the 1990s, caused cave-ins that blocked access to the shaft where the miners were. That and the presence of methane meant a search operation would take “a little longer”, he said.

“If it takes longer, it takes longer,” Mantashe said. “But we have to remove these bodies.”


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