EMERGENCY services in South Africa last night rescued the first members of a group of miners trapped underground while working illegally in an abandoned mine shaft.
Workers pulled at least 12 miners to the surface amid ongoing confusion as to how many remained in the gold shaft near Johannesburg.
Although rescuers had made contact with around 30 individuals thought to have been stranded since Saturday, those in the ventilation shaft claimed around 200 miners were trapped further below.
With no serious injuries reported among members of the initial group, the first tranche of miners were able to ascend a ladder thrown down by rescuers at around 6pm local time.
It has been claimed the miners may have been sabotaged by a rival gang who took their gold and then used a concrete slab to seal them inside the abandoned shaft in Benoni, on the eastern outskirts of the capital.
However, the Chinese owners of the mine suggested that the illegal miners dug a tunnel close to the shaft, which then collapsed behind them.
Emergency staff said they could not rule out the possibility that hundreds of miners were trapped, but stressed that similar claims had been made during previous incidents, only to be proved wrong.
Werner Vermaak, a spokesman for ER24, a private company carrying out the rescue, said other miners were on their way up following the rescue of the first four, but added that some were refusing to come to the surface for fear of being arrested.
Although Mr Vermaak revealed that some of the miners had claimed as many as 200 people were in the shaft, he said: “At this stage, we doubt there are any more.”
Rogers Mamaila, emergency management services senior district manager in the Ekurhuleni area, also cast doubt over the miners’ claims. He told the eNews Channel Africa: “We know of the 30 confirmed. The issue of 200, 300 is not true up to so far. However, because we are dealing with illegal mining, anything is possible.
“We will not rule it out but we are thinking as of now it is not possible because it is human nature that when you are trapped, you will move to the closest door to be rescued. Should it be factual that there’s 200 people there, that will be a record. Every time, from time to time when we are dealing with these incidents, people do report about 200, 300, but actually the numbers are way less than that.”
Mr Vermaak added that the shaft was located in the middle of open fields and a police patrol had been alerted by shouts from those trapped in it.
Equipment was brought in to try to remove boulders by the entrance, with ropes and a hoist lowered into the shaft.
Grant Stuart, a spokesman for the Chinese-owned bullion producer Gold One, which has prospecting rights to the mine but is not currently working it, said the miners were trapped in the New Kleinfontein 6 ventilation shaft, which had been closed off with concrete slabs. He added that drinking water had been lowered to the miners and it was hoped they would be freed by the end of the day.
Asked how the miners had become trapped, Mr Stuart suggested heavy rain may have triggered the shaft’s collapse, explaining: “The illegal miners have dug a tunnel right next to it to access the shaft and it has collapsed behind them.”
Illegal mining is common in South Africa, where informal miners excavate ore to sell, often living underground in precarious conditions. Fatal accidents are common, and underground battles between rival groups have been reported.
According to South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources, a 2008 study of the gold sector found that an estimate £309 million in revenue was lost annually as a result of illegal mining.