Nearly 3km into the earth, Anele Lodim heard men screaming for help and others groaning in pain from behind and beneath the boulders that trapped them.
Lodim had felt the seismic event at the Masakhane shaft of Sibanye-Stillwater’s Driefontein mine, near Carletonville, on Thursday.
Lodim is the chairperson of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union at the shaft.
He was sitting in his office when he heard the news that there had been a rockfall at level 40 and that some miners were trapped.
He quickly changed into his hard hat, overalls and boots and joined the team in their search and rescue mission underground.
Having not slept much since, Lodim looked exhausted as he told City Press his story on Saturday, just hours after the last body was retrieved from the shaft.
Seven miners died and six were injured.
Lodim said the first seismic event happened around midday on Thursday and measured 2.5 on the Richter scale. The second, which led to the rockfall and “caused the deaths” of his colleagues happened at 1.15pm and measured 2.2.
He said management did not withdraw workers from the shaft after the first tremor.
“Between the first and the second event, management gathered in the boardroom to identify places that were affected but did not act to try to save the lives of workers,” Lodim claimed.
He said he believed the mechanism in place to detect seismic events was not accurate and gave workers no warning.
Lodim claimed management had previously told union representatives that they had found equipment to detect seismic events, but that it was too expensive. This was after a tremor at the Yarona shaft, on the West Rand, in which a mine worker was killed in April.
Sibanye-Stillwater spokesperson James Wellsted said no such equipment existed.
Lodim said that at 3.15pm on Thursday, he and rescue staff went underground. A production supervisor and a winch driver who had been working with the trapped workers led them to where their colleagues were.
“I heard them crying out for help. They were trapped between the rocks. They were in pain,” Lodim said.
“We removed a lot of rocks. There were rocks everywhere. We used our lamps for light, but the temperature down there was too high because there was no air coming in.”
About six hours later they found the team leader.
“He was in pain, bleeding profusely and looked dehydrated. He said he didn’t have any much energy left and asked us to get him help quickly. We took him to the surface for medical attention, but he was declared dead on arrival there,” Lodim said.
On the surface, he was told that two others were being rescued. One of them, a safety representative tasked with ensuring the welfare of his crew, didn’t make it.
“Seeing all this happen hurts me a lot; seeing people die in a situation that could have been prevented. These are my colleagues and comrades. To see them trapped, coming out injured and dying has traumatised me.”
He said in his 10 years of working at the mine he had never seen anything like it.
“I strongly believe that if we had put our different views aside and focused on saving lives, they would be alive today.”
Lodim blamed management for not allowing the safety representative to withdraw workers in a potentially disastrous situation.
“He was afraid of withdrawing them, fearing he was going to be disciplined. It’s one of the things we have been fighting for,” he said.
Around 2am on Friday, rescuers found four workers alive. Lodim took a break to have something to eat, but he found it hard to swallow, his thoughts with those trapped and without food. He claimed they were not allowed to take anything to eat underground.
Two of the men rescued in the early hours of Friday also died. Another three were still missing. It was only at 6am, after carrying out a further search and removing big rocks, that one mine worker was found and also declared dead.
Another mine worker’s body was found around 2am yesterday, in the same section, buried under rocks. The body of the last mine worker was recovered around 8am.
Lodim claimed department of mineral resources officials arrived on Thursday but did not go underground.
On Saturday, as the disaster and rescue efforts were underway in the Masakhane shaft, work in other shafts continued.
Lodim said they were negotiating with management to arrange for a memorial service for their colleagues.
Wellsted said they would meet unions to discuss the memorial service. He rejected the allegation that workers were not allowed to leave the shaft when they felt their safety was at risk.
He said they had agreed with unions that workers could not take food underground, but that they would get protein supplements before going into the mine.
Mining ministry spokesperson Nathi Shabangu said Minister Gwede Mantashe said in a meeting between unions and management at the mine on Friday that workers should be given space to mourn their colleagues.
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