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Updated 06 February 2014

Mining disasters and rescues

The deaths of eight gold miners in Mpumalanga is a harsh reminder that mining is still high-risk. The industry has seen some of the worst tragedies, and some of the greatest rescues.

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Mining has confirmed its position as South Africa's most dangerous industry after eight miners lost their lives in a fire at Harmony Gold's Doornkop gold mine. Eighteen miners were initially missing. Nine emerged relatively unharmed and a further miner is unaccounted for.

Four years ago, the world was captivated by the dramatic rescue attempt of 33 miners who had been trapped for more than two months under a mountain in remote Chile. 

Mining is and always has been a dangerous profession.

Today mining (both legal and illegal) is much safer than the days of canaries and safety lamps, but it is is still high-risk. The mining industry worldwide has led to some of the worst tragedies, and some of the greatest rescues in history.

What causes mining accidents?
Explosions and fires in mines can result from flammable natural gases and combustible coal dust in the air. If a spark is struck during mining operations, it can ignite these gases and particles. Explosions and the resulting fires underground often trap workers by blocking escape routes.

Miners can die from inhaling underground leaks of poisonous gases such as methane, or from asphyxiating gases, such as carbon monoxide, produced during explosions and fires. These gases can travel throughout the passageways and ventilations shafts of a mine.

Blasting is an important part of many mining operations that causes fatality and injuries, most often as a result of workers being struck by rocks.

Collapse of mine props, as may occur with earth tremors, can lead to rock falls.

Miners can drown if spaces are flooded by leaks from subterranean water bodies.

Electric shock and burns may occur when high-reaching electrical equipment touches overhead power lines, and often happen during electrical maintenance work.

In addition to accidents, miners are at risk of serious occupational diseases, especially respiratory problems caused by long-term, repeated exposure to dust (such as coal and silica) and fumes (such as diesel). Miners also commonly suffer hearing loss, and high stress levels from the physically taxing and dangerous nature of their job.

Ten biggest mining disasters

  1. The worst mining disaster ever happened in China on 26 April 1942. In this coal dust explosion, 1 549 miners died.
  2. On 10 March 1906, 1 099 miners (this included many young children) died in a coal dust explosion in Courrieres, in France.
  3. At the Missui Miike coal mine in Japan, 458 miners were killed in an explosion on 9 November 9 1963. Hundreds of people were injured.
  4. 483 men and boys were killed in the worst Welsh coal mining disaster on 14 October 1913 at Senghenydd. A coal dust explosion was the cause of the tragedy.
  5. On 1 January 1960, 435 miners died in a mining disaster at Coalbrook in South Africa. Rock falls and methane poisoning were to blame.
  6. In Wankie, in Zimbabwe, a coal mine explosion killed 427 miners on June 6, 1972.
  7. On 28 May 1965, in Dhanbad, India, 375 miners were killed in a coal mine fire.
  8. Again in India, flooding and a coal mine explosion killed 372 miners on 27 December 1975.
  9. Several explosions at the Barnsley coal mine on 12 December 1866 led to the deaths of 361 people, 27 of whom were rescuers who were in the mine after the first explosion.
  10. 360 miners were killed in the biggest mining disaster in the United States at Monongah on 6 December 6, 1907. Explosions and poisonous gases were the cause of these deaths.

Ten great mining rescues

  1. November 1989, India: 66 miners were rescued from a flooded coal mine in India.
  2. August 1963, USA: Two miners from Sheppton, Pennsylvania, were rescued after spending 14 days and 100 metres underground with no food and little water.
  3. July 2002, USA: Nine miners from Somerset County, Pennsylvania were rescued after being trapped 73 metres underground for three days. Their shaft was flooded with water after mining a relatively unknown region of the mine.
  4. January 2003, Australia (Tasmania): Three miners were rescued after a fire broke out 400 metres below the surface. Rescuers were able to reach the men quickly and none of them received any major injuries.
  5. May 2006, Australia: Two gold miners were found alive after being trapped underground for 14 days when a small earthquake triggered a rock fall where they were working.
  6. July 2006, Canada: 72 miners were rescued from a depth of 914 metres when a fire broke out underground. They were trapped for 24 hours, saying that their survival training, along with the professionalism of their rescuers, is what saved their lives.
  7. August 2010, Chile: 33 miners survived 69 days underground before being rescued by a multinational effort costing over $20 million. They became trapped as a result of a cave-in at the notorious San Jose gold mine.
  8. October 2003, Russia: Thirteen miners were rescued after being trapped underground at a depth of 800 metres for six days. They were rescued after water from a subterranean lake leaked into a shaft above from where they were working, blocking their route to the surface.
  9. August 2007, China: Two brothers clawed their way out of a collapsed mine that became filled with water after a rock fall. They were trapped for six days. Their family presumed them to be dead, even burning money at the mine’s entrance to allow their souls passage to the afterlife.
  10. August 2007, China: 69 miners were rescued from a flooded, 800 metre deep underground shaft. The miners were supplied with milk and water through a ventilation pipe to prevent dehydration.

- Health24, updated February 2013

Sources:
Official websites of: ABC News; CBC News; Centers for Disease Control; CNN; Epic Disasters; News24; Post-Gazette; United States Mine Rescue Association; Wikipedia; Yahoo News

 
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