JOHANNESBURG – Saturday marked exactly one month since three workers were trapped underground at Lily Mine near Barberton in Mpumalanga.
It’s bad news for the families of Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyirenda because mine officials say operations to reach the trio have been suspended once again.
The workers were in a lamp room when a mine shaft collapsed on February 5. More than 70 other miners were also trapped, but were rescued just hours after the incident.
Officials have been working for four weeks to reach the three workers using experts and specialised machinery.
The mission was dealt a major blow about two weeks ago when there was a second rock fall which meant a complete halt to the recovery operation.
“When we started the rescue process it was still complex but much simpler than now because we still had the main shaft available to us so the rescue workers could use the main shaft to get into the mine and start their work. Then we had the second rock fall – the shaft fell in and become inoperable which meant there was only one way in and out of the mine which is the ventilation shaft,” said mine spokesperson Coetzee Zietsman.
A new emergency shaft had to be drilled using specialised equipment that was brought in.
Now, after 10 days of drilling and experts doing a stability and safety assessment, the operation has been dealt yet another blow.
“Unfortunately we won’t be able to get back into the mine, according to them (experts). The ground is just too unstable – there is still some rock fall happening on an hourly basis. Even underground there is still some rocks falling and until we can stabilise that body of ground that lies there on top of that container there is no safe way of sending rescue workers down into the mine,” he said.
Now officials have gone back to the drawing board as the mission becomes increasingly complex and dangerous.
“You have a heap of ground (soil or rubble) underground so the moment you start digging underneath the ground from the top will start coming down – and I think that is the big challenge,” he added.
While officials work to get the process on track, it has been a trying time for the families of the three workers.
The emotionally drained family members are seeking closure, comforted by relatives and the community as they wait to be reunited with their loved ones.