Sixty-one illegal miners found dead in South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG — At least 61 prospectors have been found dead in an abandoned gold mine, police said Tuesday, but the tragedy was unlikely to deter others from seeking riches in South Africa’s hazardous network of tunnels and shafts.

JOHANNESBURG — At least 61 prospectors have been found dead in an abandoned gold mine, police said Tuesday, but the tragedy was unlikely to deter others from seeking riches in South Africa’s hazardous network of tunnels and shafts. The bodies were found by other illegal miners, who brought 36 to the surface over the weekend, according to Harmony Gold mining company, which had ceased working its Eland shaft. Another 25 bodies left at drop-off points underground were brought up on Tuesday, said Tom Smith, chief of operations for Harmony’s southern region. Police called on relatives to help identify the victims and said they were investigating what might have caused the deaths. Harmony said more bodies may be in the shaft and suggested an underground fire could have caused the deaths. It said, however, it would not send anyone to search the shaft and noted that such abandoned mines were "extremely dangerous." The miners may also have died after inhaling poisonous gas sometimes found in mines, police spokesman Stephen Thakeng said. The deaths, however, were unlikely to deter thousands of others from the lucrative but risky practice, as about 25 percent of South Africans are now unemployed and eager to earn even a pittance. The dangers of illegal mining can include cave-ins as well as noxious fumes or explosions from the chemicals used in extracting gold ore. "There are still people involved … despite the dangers," the police spokesman, Thakeng, said. "Around this area, it’s really a problem." South Africa is one of the world’s largest gold producers and has some of the world’s deepest mines, with shafts sunk kilometers (miles) underground. Illegal miners, often called "gold pirates," are hired through organized crime rackets that produce about $250 million in gold a year. "There are people driving this thing," the police spokesman, Thakeng, said. The miners, often unqualified, sneak in and make their way through a warren of interconnecting tunnels to the ore. There can be up to 1,000 illegal miners working one area at a time, often spending weeks or even months underground with food, drink and mail brought to them. Authorities have caught 294 illegal miners in the last two weeks at Eland alone, according to Harmony, which is working with police to crack down on the practice. "There’s huge money involved," Harmony’s Smith said. South African trade union Solidarity urged the government to investigate illegal mining, noting that the deaths of 81 illegal miners have been reported this year. The details of their deaths are unclear. "Not only are the illegal miners stealing gold worth millions of rands, but the ensuing accidents are always very severe," Solidarity spokesman Jaco Kleynhans said. ______ In photo: In this Wednesday Oct. 10, 2007 photo, residents are seen near a collection of plastic buckets, some with freshly washed silt coating the bottom, and in them a glitter of gold dust, indicating illegal mining activity at the municipal-owned G Hostel on the outskirts of Welkom, South Africa Wednesday Oct. 10, 2007. The bodies of 25 illegal gold miners have been brought to the surface at the nearby Eland Shaft, Tuesday, June 2, 2009, bringing to 61 the number of deaths following an underground fire in an abandoned shaft, police and a mining company official said. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, file)

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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