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Underground movement detected at South African mine a month after a gas explosion shuttered the site

  • Last month, a South African gold mine collapsed during a gas explosion, which was suspected to have caused the deaths of at least 31 workers.
  • However, South African authorities say they have detected movement underground, raising the possibility that some of the workers survived.
  • Due to the dangerous amounts of methane gas present in the South African mine, search efforts has not yet been launched.

South African authorities have detected “movement” underground at a shuttered gold mine where they believe at least 31 illegal miners died in a suspected gas explosion last month, raising the very slim possibility that there may be survivors, officials said.

Officials also said it’s likely that there were more illegal miners underground than initially thought and the death count will be higher than 31.

But a search operation at the disused Virginia gold mine in the central city of Welkom has not yet been launched because of the dangerously high levels of methane gas still present in the mine, which means there could be more explosions.

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“As it stands now it’s rather difficult,” Department of Mineral Resources and Energy spokesperson 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 underground activity detected is “human movement.”

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

south africa resident

A street vendor sells oranges at a taxi rank in Welkom, South Africa, on June 23, 2023. At least 31 people were believed to have died in a gas explosion in a disused mine shaft in South Africa. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

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

Illegal miners do take food, water and other supplies with them as they expect to be underground for some time.

But given that the explosion was suspected to have happened over a month ago, the chances of there being survivors are minimal and the mineral resources department could not confirm what the movements detected were until it had more information, Shabangu said.

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

Illegal gold mining is rife in South Africa, where groups of men go into mines that are no longer commercially viable in the hope of striking it rich by finding deposits that have been left behind. The illegal mining comes with high risks and fatal incidents are fairly common.

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

 

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

Mantashe said initial investigations showed that last month’s explosion in the mine, which was shut down in the 1990s, had caused collapses which had sealed off access to the shaft where the miners were. That and the presence of the methane meant a search operation would take “a bit longer,” he said.

“If it takes longer, it takes longer,” Mantashe said. “But we must take those bodies out.”

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