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Workers evacuated from S. Africa mine

About 3,000 are expected to be rescued

An aerial view of the Elandsrand Mine complex where miners were trapped after a burst pipe damaged an elevator shaft. An aerial view of the Elandsrand Mine complex where miners were trapped after a burst pipe damaged an elevator shaft. (GEOEYE SATELLITE IMAGE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2001)

CARLETONVILLE, South Africa - About 3,000 gold miners were trapped a mile underground early today when falling pipe damaged the elevator, but the company began rescuing workers through a smaller shaft and estimated it would take several hours to get them all out.

About 350 miners had been pulled to safety after about three hours of work, the company said.

There were no injuries and there was no immediate danger to any of the workers in Harmony Gold Mining Co.'s Elandsrand Mine, company and union officials said.

Peter Bailey, health and safety chairman for the National Mineworkers Union, said the first 74 men reached the surface shortly after 1 a.m. local time today. "They are all doing well," he said.

The miners were trapped at a level slightly more than a mile underground when a column of water pipes fell down an elevator shaft causing extensive damage to the steel framework and electrical cables. Miners had to be evacuated with a smaller cage in another shaft.

Sethiri Thibile, with the first batch of miners rescued about 19 hours after the accident occurred, clutched a cold beef sandwich and a bottle of water he was given when he reached the surface.

"I was hungry, though we were all hungry," said Thibile, 32, an engineering assistant who had been underground since early yesterday morning. He said there was no food or water in the mine.

"Most of the people are scared and we also have some women miners there underground," said Thibile.

After Thibile's group rescued, Harmony's acting chief executive Graham Briggs said groups would be brought to the surface at intervals of every 25 to 30 minutes.

"It's going to take some time because we are doing it carefully," he said. "Nobody is injured, nobody is hurt, nothing like that at all." He estimated the evacuation would take about 10 hours, but the earlier stages of the operation appeared to be going slower than that.

Rescued miners emerged from the shaft with their faces etched with dust and the lamps on their hardhats still lit.

"We are still all right. I am a bit relieved but very, very hungry," miner Jerry Lepolese said after.

Disgruntled family members stood outside the mine offices, complaining that they had not been given enough information about their loved ones.

"I am very traumatized, exhausted, not knowing what is going on," said Sam Ramohanoe, whose wife, Flora, 31, was among the trapped. "It is very unfair to us, not knowing what is going one with our beloved ones."

Deon Boqwana, regional chairman for the union, said officials were in contact with the men by a telephone line in the mine.

The mine is outside Carletonville, a town near Johannesburg.

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