The rescue of at least 12 artisanal diamond miners trapped in collapsed mine tunnels in the Northern Cape will be hazardous and difficult.
The 12 were among dozens of miners working underground at the shuttered Nuttaboy Mine on the outskirts of Springbok in Namaqualand when several handmade tunnels collapsed on Wednesday last week.
The Eminetra news website reported that five miners are thought to have died in the incident. The alarm was raised after a miner managed to dig his way out on Wednesday.
The mine is owned by west coast Resources. Ten miners died in 2012 at the nearby Bontekoe mine when a tunnel collapsed there.
Springbok mayor Marvin Cloete told the SABC that rescue operations were under way but were possible only during the day for safety reasons.
“The mine on the west coast has also helped locate where the incident happened,” Cloete told SABC.
Den Williams of Mines Rescue Services said crews had been dispatched to the mine.
“They are currently investigating the incident and conducting an assessment,” he said.
Mine rescues are complex and fraught with danger, Williams said. “You cannot risk a life to save a life. Before a rescue is launched a thorough assessment has to be conducted,” he said.
“Assessments include investigating ground and underground conditions, ventilation, access routes and whether the rescue is because of fire or collapsed tunnels. If we are dealing with underground fires, we usually have two teams at the incident site, with each team having its own specific tasks.”
He said collapsed tunnel and shaft rescues were extremely difficult.
“They require specialised stabilising equipment and systems, which are needed to support tunnel walls and roofs. This is required so one can gain access to sealed off areas ... you often have no idea of exactly where a miner is trapped. In the Northern Cape, tunnel sidewalls can easily collapse because of the soil structure.
“Collapsed tunnel rescues become digging operations ... these have to be done slowly because of instability; it often takes weeks to dig someone out.”
Rescue equipment typically includes specialised lifting, cutting and digging machinery and camera systems, he said.
“We also use what is known as a trapped location device. It is similar to a sonar device and can pick up the slightest movement from a trapped miner. It can pinpoint a person’s location to within a few metres of where the movement was detected.”
SA has 950 mine rescue specialists, located at mines across the country, Williams said.