The South African government shut down Elandsrand gold mine yesterday as the last of 3,200 miners trapped more than a mile underground made their way back to the surface after more than 36 hours underground.
The 3,000 men and 200 women became trapped when the electricity cable of the main lift at the mine near Carletonville was severed on Wednesday morning, condemning them to a long and anxious wait in a confined, cramped space where temperatures touched 40C.
"I felt like the sky had fallen on Mother Earth," said a visibly exhausted miner, Zondi Khumalo, as he emerged blinking into the sunlight.
"I never thought I would make it ... I don't know where I will ever get the courage to go down this mine again."
Some of the miners emerged singing joyfully and stamping their feet, happy to be out in the fresh air. But others complained about the failure of the mine's operator, Harmony Gold, the world's fifth biggest gold mining company, to guarantee their security.
The National Union of Mineworkers, which has been at loggerheads with many established mines over safety standards, alleged that the incident had been a result of negligence by Harmony Gold.
Those allegations were denied by company spokesmen, although the chairman, Patrice Motsepe, described the accident as a "wake-up call to all of us". He told the South African Press Association: "We have to recommit ourselves to refocus on safety in this country, our safety record both as a company and an industry leave much to be desired."
Anxious relatives waited yesterday for their loved ones to emerge from the depths of the mine. "I feel like I am on death row," said a distraught Nthabiseng Reklame as another group of men staggered out of the mine entrance, and her husband was among them.
Many of those working in South Africa's gold mines, the deepest in the world, are migrants from across southern Africa, lured to the Johannesburg area by the promise of a regular wage.
Rose Mncina, 24, had made her way 350 miles from Lesotho, as soon as she heard about the accident at the mine where her husband worked. "I couldn't sleep soon after hearing of the news and so I decided to hitch-hike throughout the night until I reached this place. Most of the journey, I could not help but think I was on my way to collect my husband's corpse," she said.
"I cannot tell you how relieved I am," she said, throwing her arms around her husband, who was still too shocked to speak, after he emerged from the pit.
The main elevator cable was damaged when a pressurised air pipe snapped and hurtled down the shaft. The trapped miners were brought to the surface in a second smaller cage from another shaft. They could only be brought up in small groups, meaning the rescue effort dragged on for hours.
Those who had to wait underground were kept near a ventilation shaft and were given food and water, officials said, although paramedics had to treat one man for dehydration above ground.
Harmony Gold was further criticised by the South African government for not having informed ministers about the crisis immediately. Buyelwa Sonjica, the Mines and Energy minister, complained that she had only learnt of the incident from the late evening news bulletin despite the fact that the mine's main lift went out of action at six in the morning.
Mrs Sonjica said the mine would be closed for six weeks, while the shaft was repaired, and then the government would carry out a thorough evaluation before reopening. She also called for safety regulations at mines across the country to be tightened.
About 200 mineworkers died in various accidents at mines around South Africa last year alone, prompting allegations from trade unions that established mining companies put profits ahead of the safety of their mostly black workers. Just last week, four workers were killed in a rock fall in a mine operated by AngloGold Ashanti.
The main mining union said that Harmony's Gold practice of mining 24 hours a day meant that there was no time to make adequate checks. Peter Bailey, the union's health and safety chairman said that an inspection of the shaft last week had taken 30 minutes rather than the full day required, and that the alternative emergency exit had been neglected and allowed to become flooded.
Both the government and the mine operator have said they will conduct investigations to determine exactly the accident happened. The union urged the South African government to take action to enforce safety standards or risk industrial action.
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