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177 Dead, 235 Injured in Mine Disaster

September 17, 1986

EVANDER, South Africa (AP) _ Weary rescue crews on Wednesday collected the bodies of miners sprawled along a mile-deep shaft that a raging fire turned into a death trap for at least 177 men in South Africa’s worst gold mine disaster.

Five miners still were missing and believed dead after the Tuesday fire at Kinross Gold Mine released lethal clouds of chemical fumes in the No. 2 shaft where about 2,400 men were working.

Survivors told of being trapped, unable to breath, of clouds of smoke and of their desperation as they watched their friends fall dead. ″Only about seven of us made it to the surface,″ said Komiti Mmereko, a black driller with one mining crew.

Officials said 235 of the miners were hospitalized with burns, injuries and chest pains from inhaling the fumes that filled the mine after a fire was accidentally started by a welding machine.

The miners ″didn’t stand a chance,″ according to Dick Grenfell, a 38- year-old Briton who survived the fire. ″They just ran into a wall of smoke and must have dropped like flies.″

Most of South Africa’s miners are black and the union representing black miners called the accident ″a clear indictment of the industry.″ A statement said, ″It has required tragedy after tragedy and the loss of many lives before the industry and government pay attention to safety standards.″

Most of the bodies were found along a mile-long horizontal tunnel, some in groups and some alone - men who perished as they frantically sought a way out.

″The smoke started coming in. Then the oxygen was gone. I couldn’t breathe,″ said Bedron Siphoso from his bed at the Winkelhaak Mine Hospital.

He said he fainted and when he came to, ″I saw many of the others were dead.″ Rescue crews saved him.

Trucks drove in and out of the mine compound, and men with hoses washed dust from the hoist cage that brought bodies to the surface.

Jacobus Olivier, general manager of the mine 62 miles southeast of Johannesburg, gave the official casualty figures. He said that of the dead, five were white and 172 were black migrant workers from tribal homelands and neighboring black countries.

He said government engineers were removing samples of the materials that had burned in the fire to determine which one spewed the killer gases. Olivier said the source could have been a polyurethane foam used to help seal structural bracing in the tunnels.

Workers were welding a broken rail used by small trains to transport ore when the fire broke out. Olivier said an acetylene gas cylinder caught fire, and the blaze spread to the walls covered with the polyurethane foam.

The fumes killed all the victims, he said.

The accident occurred just days after the Chamber of Mines, the association of mining companies, reported its best safety figures ever for gold mines.

The chamber said fatalities in the first six months of 1986 dropped below one per 1,000 workers for the first time, with 234 men killed.

But the black National Union of Mineworkers, which claims about half the nation’s 450,000 black gold miners as members, said, ″This disaster takes us back to the Dark Ages and demonstrates clearly the unacceptably low safety standards practiced in South Africa’s mining industry.″

Dr. Steve Goosen of the mine hospital said 25 blacks were in satisfactory condition and still being treated. The rest of the 183 admitted Tuesday were discharged. Goosen said the hospital had checked 2,000 miners for possible lung injuries.

The 52 injured whites were treated at Evander Hospital, where the mine is located.

Weary, weeping families of white miners waited in cars outside the mine for news of husbands and sons.

Miner Billy Tarran’s wife said, ″My husband said there were bodies piled up. Men were lying with blood coming out of their mouths.″

The black miners live in hostels on the mine property during their 14-month contract periods and have little contact with the small town of Evander.

It was the worst gold mining accident in South Africa, and the second worst mining accident. A collapse in the Coalbrook North Colliery, south of Johannesburg, buried 437 coal miners in 1960. The second-worst gold mining accident was in 1909, when 152 miners died in flooding at a Johannesburg mine.

The mine, with 8,000 black workers and 1,000 whites accounts for about 2 percent of the nation’s output.

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