ELANDSRAND MINE, South Africa, Oct 4 (Reuters) Rescue teams working to save 3,200 miners trapped deep underground in a South African gold mine brought 1,350 to the surface today morning, mine and union officials said.
Mine owner Harmony Gold said the rescue operation was going smoothly and that a secondary lift was bringing up batches of miners stranded underground when the electricity cable of the main lift was cut in an accident.
But the powerful mining union said it suspected negligence was behind the accident and vowed to push gold firms to build secondary, or emergency, exits in the mine.
Chief Executive Officer Graham Briggs told Reuters he was confident all the miners would be lifted to the surface in a small elevator at the Elandsrand mine near Carletonville, southwest of Johannesburg.
''There have been no injuries or deaths ... It may take as long as 10 hours, the cage (lift) is travelling fairly slowly to avoid risks ... I'm very confident all will come out,'' Briggs said.
Briggs said production at the mine had been halted and would remain shut down until an investigation had been carried out and the damage repaired. Harmony is the world's fifth biggest gold producer.
But the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said it suspected that negligence and Harmony's practice of mining 24 hours per day caused the accident.
''We suspect negligence. Because of continuous operations there is no time to make adequate checks,'' NUM President Senzeni Zokwana told reporters.
Zokwaba said emergency exits were needed to give workers an alternative escape route. ''The manner of mining is a problem, we want to push the companies to build secondary exits, linked to the neighbouring mine,'' he said.
The first miners emerged at around 0500 hrs IST, after being trapped 2.2 km underground for over 15 hours. Between 150 and 200 women miners were among those trapped.
''I feel happy to be on the surface. it was hot, dusty and I am quite hungry now,'' said 27-year-old Zandile Sindiwe, as he walked out of the elevator into a cold, windy night.
By 1050 hrs IST, 1,350 mineworkers had been brought to the surface and mine officials said they hoped to have the remaining workers above ground by early afternoon.
An NUM spokesman said earlier that the miners were trapped in a cramped space where temperatures could reach 30 to 40 degrees Celsius.
The miners were caught after an air pipe broke off and hurtled down the shaft, damaging steelwork and severing an electrical cable carrying power to the main lift, Briggs said.
AIR AND WATER Rescuers were in contact with the trapped miners and clean air and water were being pumped down to them, Briggs said. ''It's a very serious incident, but it's under control,'' he added. They were using a smaller lift close to the main elevator.
South African gold mines are the deepest in the world and unions have often criticised companies for not doing enough to ensure workers' safety.
Gold mine operations have come under scrutiny over the past few months following a series of accidents as gold producers mine ever deeper to offset lower production and reap the benefits of a sharply higher bullion price.
Gold output in South Africa, the world's biggest gold producer, has tumbled by over 50 percent over the past decade, as high-grade mines run out of ore and firms grapple with more difficult and high-cost underground operations.
The government briefly closed an AngloGold Ashanti mine in July after two miners were killed in a rock fall.
Harmony bought the Elandsrand mine and nearby Deelkraal operations from rival AngloGold Ashanti in 2001. At the time production was declining and Harmony saw potential in digging a new mine underneath the old one.
Harmony, which employs around 44,000 people and produced 2.4 million ounces of gold in 2006, expects to complete the new Elandsrand mine by 2011 and to mine it for a further 18 years.
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