South African police call off rescue effort after cave-in at illegal gold mine

11 Johannesburg miners brought to the surface but as many as 200 refuse help, fearing arrest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 9:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 4:07am


South African police have declared rescue operations at an illegal gold closed after 11 miners were brought to the surface.

An unknown number of men, possibly as many as 200, remained underground, refusing to come to the surface because they feared arrest.

The rescued men, who were uninjured, were immediately handed over to police. Rescue officials said many others who had been trapped by a cave-in were now able to leave the mine if they chose but had refused to come out while officials were present.

"We managed to retrieve 11 young men. We believe they are South Africans; they have been treated and handed over to the police," municipal emergency and rescue services official Roger Mamaila said.

"Yes, there is a possibility there could be more, but we don't know and we are not going to send our rescuers down there."

The number of people still down there remains unclear. Thirty miners who were trapped at a shallow level had earlier told rescuers there were 200 others stuck at a level underneath them.

That was never confirmed, however, with local municipal officials insisting there were only about 30 people trapped.

Mamaila declared the rescue operation closed around two hours after the 11 were brought to the surface.

"Should there be somebody who was not brave enough to come out, at least we removed the boulders and have created a free passageway," he said. "It's for them to decide when to come out."

Municipal officials said the workers went down into the mine on Saturday using a shaft dug illegally behind a cricket stadium in the Benoni district east of Johannesburg.

But police suspect some of them had been underground for up to 12 days.

Many are thought to be former mine workers who are familiar with the geography of the mines and can walk for several kilometres underground and possibly come out through other exit points.

Illegal mining in the bowels of South Africa's abandoned pits has long plagued the world's sixth-largest gold producer, with diggers - known as zama zamas (try, try) - living sometimes for months underground to smuggle the precious metal.

The men became trapped when large rocks fell and blocked the entrance to the shaft, and were able to climb out when rescuers using excavation equipment cleared the way.

Police on patrol in the area discovered the men were trapped when a passer-by said he had heard people screaming for help.

Last century, an estimated 69,000 people died in South Africa's mining industry.