An unknown number of illegal miners who are reportedly trapped in an abandoned gold shaft east of Johannesburg are refusing to be rescued, afraid that they will be arrested if the come out, according to officials. The miners were working illegally at the abandoned South African mine when it collapsed on Saturday morning.
At least 11 miners were escorted to safety Sunday after rescue workers cleared the shaft entrance, but an undetermined number of their comrades were still in the gold mine, emergency responder Kobus Du Plooy said by telephone late Sunday. The miners who came out were dehydrated but in good spirits, Du Plooy said. Earlier, rescue vehicles and equipment were brought to the site to stabilize the ground before the rescue operation began.
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.
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The miners 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 teams arriving at the scene were able to speak to about 30 miners near the top of the old shaft, whose entrance was covered by a large rock, the news agency said. Those miners said as many as 200 others were trapped further down a steep tunnel at the mine in Benoni, on the outskirts of South Africa's biggest city.
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.
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.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Old metallic parts to machinery litter the lawn of an abandoned cabin in Bannack, Mont. (Flickr/Nomadic Lass)