JOHANNESBURG – They refused to be rescued.
Emergency workers in South Africa cleared a mine shaft entrance of debris on Sunday, allowing miners who had been trapped below the chance to escape. The only problem was that the miners were working illegally at the abandoned mine, and some stayed underground because they feared arrest if they came out, according to officials.
At least 11 miners were escorted to safety at the mine in Benoni, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, but an undetermined number of their comrades still were in the gold mine, emergency responder Kobus Du Plooy said by telephone late Sunday.
Police were preparing to question those who came out about anyone left underground, local media reported.
After nightfall, some mine security officials remained at the site, but rescue workers had packed up and left, leaving behind a ladder in the shaft for those still below.
“Should they have a change of heart and mind, they then have at least some access to get out of the shaft,” Du Plooy said.
He said he didn’t know how many people were still in the shaft. Earlier, reports said more than 200 miners had been trapped. But the ones who emerged were tightlipped about the colleagues they left behind, apparently concerned about trouble with the police.
“They don’t want to give away too much information,” Du Plooy said. It was unclear how long the holdouts, who seemed to have few options, planned to prolong their stay in the mine.
Some of the 11 who came out were dehydrated but otherwise in good health. They were believed to have been trapped since Saturday morning and police patrolling in the area heard their screams for help, the South African Press Association reported. Rescue vehicles and equipment were brought to the site to stabilize the ground before the removal of the rubble began.
Illegal mining is common in South Africa, a major producer of gold and platinum. Workers brave unsafe conditions below ground amid reports of the involvement of organized crime and even clashes between rival groups seeking to extract precious metal from the shafts.
Authorities suspect the miners in Benoni were robbed by a rival group that blocked the mine exit, reported Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet.
Illegal mining remains a serious concern, despite progress in curbing it, South Africa’s mineral resources department said in a statement. It attributed the improvement to “illegal mining forums,” in which stakeholders in the mining industry seal open shafts and seek to detain illegal miners, according to the South African Press Association.
Some analysts say the problem could increase if legal mines close or downsize, forcing skilled workers who have lost their jobs to turn to illegal activities. South Africa’s mining industry, a pillar of the economy, is struggling with rising costs. Tens of thousands of workers in the platinum sector are currently on strike.