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Black Miners to Stop Work for Day of Mourning

September 19, 1986

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The country’s largest black miners’ union asked its 250,000 members on Friday to stop work for one day to mourn 177 miners killed a mile underground in a gold mine fire this week.

The National Union of Mineworkers also charged that the owners of Kinross Gold Mine had refused to let mining experts from Britain, West Germany and Sweden visit the scene of Tuesday’s fire at Evander, 62 miles southeast of Johannesburg.

However, Carl Netscher, senior director of General Mining Union Corp.’s mining division, said he knew of no such request. He said it would be considered if and when received.

Union General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa told reporters the foreign experts could check union claims that safety irregularities contributed to the disaster, the worst in South Africa’s gold mining industry.

Ramaphosa said, ″We feel Gencor is going to remove as much evidence as they possibly can. We and our members will never know the true cause of the accident.″

He said the Chamber of Mines, the industry association, had been asked to approve the one-day work stoppage Oct. 1 at all gold and coal mines, which employ more than 600,000 workers. Of the 177 miners who died at Kinross, 172 were black and five were white.

In addition, 235 miners were injured and one man was missing.

If the chamber refused, Ramaphosa said, mine union members would strike for the day without permission. He said other unions in the 500,000-member Congress of South African Trade Unions would be asked to join the action.

Ramaphosa also said his union would hold strike votes among members over the next two weeks following the breakdown earlier Friday of four-month-lon g wage talks with the Chamber of Mines. He said a nationwide strike in the gold and coal industries would begin soon thereafter if approved.

Mining accounts for more than half of South Africa’s foreign income, and a lengthy strike could be devastating. However, the union’s attempted strike at selected gold mines fizzled last year in the face of threats of mass dismissal.

Derek L. Keys, Gencor’s executive chairman, declined at a news conference Friday to respond to Ramaphosa’s charge that the disaster might have been averted but for purported safety shortcomings.

″I am awaiting the verdict of the inquiry,″ Keys said.

Con Fauconnier, head of mining and medical services, said that Kinross had fallen from five to three stars in industry safety ratings and that one problem area involved planned inspections of operations, including fire control.

Company officials said they did not know if a polyurethane foam sealant, suspected of pouring out fatal fumes during the Kinross fire, underwent safety tests before being used.

Executives said the foam was installed six years ago on a tiny fraction of the mine’s 190 miles of tunnels, and had not been used since.

The foam was fire-retardant but not fireproof, Fauconnier said. He said Gencor mines usually used a concrete-like, non-flammable material called gunnite to line tunnels to protect against seepage and corrosion.

He said he did not know why the foam was used for the nearly 2,000-foot- long section of tunnel where a welding accident sparked the fire Tuesday.

Fauconnier said the source of the fumes in the blaze had not yet been identified with certainty. He and others refused comment on reports that the welders had no fire extinguisher, saying that would form part of the inquiry.

Gencor officials said all foam in the mine was being removed.

Netscher said some work had resumed in the No. 2 shaft where the fire occurred, but that workers who objected to working there could labor elsewhere.

Keys also announced a $900,000 fund for victims of the fire, to augment lump-sum settlements under industry agreements.

″We owe it to the dead to see to it that their dependents suffer in no further way than in the irreparable personal loss for which there is no human remedy,″ Keys said.

He said Gencor had begun at once a study of safety at all its mines.

″Until Tuesday ... we thought we were winning the battle against mine fatalities, and the record will show that there were objective grounds supporting that belief,″ he said. ″This has been blown away, and it’s start- again time and think-again time at Gencor safety management.″

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