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Former Lily miners on daring mission to recover bodies of colleagues buried underground

2019-06-20 00:30

Former Lily miners are taking matters into their own hands to bring to surface remains of colleagues buried underground for three years

Fed up and disillusioned, former workers of a closed Mpumalanga gold mine are prepared to risk their own lives by launching a daring attempt to recover the bodies of their three former colleagues who have been buried 60m below the surface since 2016.

Professional mine rescue teams abandoned the site three years ago after realising that it was going to be a mission impossible to reach the container office that had plunged down with Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Nkambule and Solomon Nyirenda inside without risking their own lives because the ground was unstable.

The entrance to Lily Mine in Louisville near Barberton caved in on February 5 2016 – just after 75 workers had entered the shaft at the start of their morning shift.

The trio’s bodies were left buried underground.

However, their families’ hopes were raised when the department of mineral resources and mine owner, Vantage Goldfields SA (VGSA), said once a new investor was found, and mining had to resume, the priority would be to dig a new shaft on safer ground to reach the container office to retrieve the bodies and have them buried properly.

Since the disaster, three investors – two Canadian and one local – have raised their hands to re-open the mine for R310 million but their deals with VGSA fell through – prolonging the families’ agonising wait for closure.

A new investor, Siyakhula Sisonke Corporation (SSC) Flaming Silver, was keen to reopen the mine by March 25 this year after signing a deal to acquire 74% of VGSA but the seller has backtracked, claiming that the company did not have the funds.

In the meantime, the families’ grief has been prolonged.

The wrangle between the two companies is now before the high court where Flaming Silver has applied to force VGSA to honour their sale agreement and hand over share certificates.

Emboldened by the zama-zamas who have been making a killing by illegally mining at Lily Mine, nine former workers went underground last week to assess the situation for themselves – an action that the department of mineral resources is unhappy about.

The families, former workers and the Louisville community decided to pitch a tent near the mine about a month ago, and every day, they hope that the mine’s owners and the department will see that they need closure and recovering the three mine workers’ remains is a start.

Harry Mazibuko, a former worker at the mine, conceded this week that it was going to be a risky exercise to reach the container office, but they were determined to do so.

“We know there’s a risk,” Mazibuko said, “but we can’t fold our arms.”

One of the former workers of Lily mine assessing the risks involved

When the team of nine men went underground two weeks ago, they saw fissures at levels two and three of the mine, which proved that the surface was unstable. The mine has 13 levels underground.

The team went to level four where it is believed the container officer is buried.

“There’s water that needs to be pumped out and thousands of tons of rocks that need to be removed before the container can be reached,” Mazibuko said.

They came out knowing exactly what they needed to do next, but this mission would not come cheap.

This is an entrance to level seven at Lily Mine

First they need equipment such as a water pump, a Tractor Loader Backhoe, chain blocks, timber, protective clothes and lights.

He added that there was an escape route that went down to level seven of the mine, which they could use in their mission but it needed a winch to take the miners and equipment underground.

Second, the team will also need the expertise of a safety officer, a geologist and a surveyor. As a result, Mazibuko said, they have started negotiations with various retired experts to help.

“We don’t want to go down there to search for three people and lose more people while doing so. The families’ hopes have been revived and they wish that their relatives can be taken to the surface sooner than later,” said Mazibuko.

Yvonne’s father, Elmon Mnisi, said they had hoped the government would help them recover the bodies but it appeared as if the authorities have forgotten about them.

“It doesn’t help to wait for [the] government who doesn’t care about us. The government is no longer talking about us,” Mnisi said. “The families, workers and the community will succeed on their own to find our relatives and close this painful chapter,” he added.

Mineral resources spokesperson, Ayanda Shezi, said the department was totally opposed to the workers’ initiative to go underground.

“Entering the premises of the mine without authorisation is illegal and poses safety risks. The department supports all efforts to ensure the new owners can resume operation and find the container so their families and loved ones can have closure,” Shezi said.

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October 13 2019