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URGENT 170 Dead, 235 Injured In Mine Fire

September 17, 1986

EVANDER, South Africa (AP) _ A fire that sent deadly fumes billowing through a gold mine shaft one mile underground killed 170 miners and injured 235, a mine official said Wednesday.

Jacobus Olivier, manager of General Mining Union Corp. mines east of Johannesburg, said rescuers were still searching for about 14 other miners in the Kinross mine, nearly 24 hours after welders accidentally ignited the blaze in the shaft.

Dawie de Beer, a spokesman for General Mining, South Africa’s second- largest mining group, told reporters at the mine gate that 26 bodies were brought out of the mine shortly before midnight, about 14 hours after the fire broke out.

Eighteen bodies had been recovered earlier.

Spotlights illuminated the two pithead towers as search operations continued through the night. Ambulances and police cars were standing by.

Guards checked vehicles at the gate, but there was no gathering of relatives awaiting word about the fate of the missing men.

Many black miners live in company hostels and cannot be joined by their families who remain in the black homelands or neighboring countries.

Olivier said earlier that 128 black workers and 55 whites were hospitalized in Evander, which is on the edge of the mine, most suffering from smoke inhalation.

Five were reported in serious condition while the others were listed as satisfactory.

At least 13 of the dead miners were known to be blacks, but no information was available on the others known to have died.

It was the worst mining disaster since 1983 when 68 workers were killed in a methane gas explosion at the Hlobane coal mine.

More than 2,000 miners were brought safely out of the shafts, Olivier said, and 140 rescue workers were in the mine early Wednesday searching for survivors.

There was hope that some of the miners had avoided the deadly fumes by staying in pockets of untainted air.

Harry Hill, another company spokesman, said an alarm was sounded to evacuate the No. 2 shaft at the Kinross mine, 62 miles east of Johannesburg, when the fire broke out at 9:30 a.m.

Mine officials said there an explosion in an acetylene welding torch or gas cylinder started the fire. The flames spread through electric cables and other material in a horizontal passage at the 15th level between the mine’s two vertical shafts, they said.

Hill said the fumes ″spread through the working areas of the No. 2 shaft,″ and he believed the fatal gases were carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide.

Miners normally do not wear gas masks underground, and Hill said he did not know if masks were available.

South Africa’s mines depend on blacks who are regarded as migrant workers. Factional fighting at the all-male hostels in which the workers live claimed more than 100 lives in the first six months of the year.

The Chamber of Mines had issued a report Tuesday saying that in the first half of 1986, the fatality rate for gold mine accidents dropped below one per 1,000 workers for the first time. It said the injury rate has been halved over the past 10 years, and so far this year had been reduced to 18.81 per 1,000.

The Chamber of Mines, representing South Africa’s mining companies, said safety improvements were achieved despite new difficulties associated with the increasing depths and scale of operations.

South Africa’s mines have an additional complication, the dozen different languages spoken by the miners from many areas of the country and surrounding nations. A pseudo-language, based mostly on Zulu, has been developed for communication in the mines. The language, called Fanagalo, is used on safety signs.

The Kinross tragedy brought an angry response from Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers that claims a membership of about half of the country’s 450,000 black miners.

″These types of accidents where workers are killed through factors that can be avoided by management are becoming totally unacceptable,″ he said.

The worst accident at a gold mine in the past 10 years occurred in December 1978 when a fire broke out in the Vaal Reefs Gold Mine, trapping and killing 41 miners.

The highest death toll from a South African mining accident occurred when tunnels in a coal mine collapsed in January 1960, burying 437 miners alive at the Coalbrook North Colliery near Sasolburg, 37 miles south of Johannesburg.

The deadliest gold mine disaster occured in 1900, when 152 mineworkers were drowned in a flooded mine of the Witwatersrand Gold Mining Co.

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