JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The all-black National Union of Mineworkers on Wednesday denounced the "unacceptably low safety standards" of South Africa's mining industry after the deaths of 177 miners in the country's worst mine disaster since 1960.
"This disaster is a clear indictment of the industry and makes clear that its claims of having the lowest fatality and injury rate in the world are absurd," the 250,000-member union said in a statement.
It called for a full government investigation into mine safety after Tuesday's fire at the Kinross Gold Mine and added: "It has required tragedy after tragedy and the loss of many lives for the industry and government to pay attention to safety standards."
Seven miners were still missing and presumed dead in tunnels a mile underground at Kinross, a medium-size but rich gold mine 65 miles east-southeast of Johannesburg; 235 others were hospitalized, many in serious condition.
To the National Union of Mineworkers and other black unions, the issue is the extent to which white-owned companies sacrifice black workers, whether through low pay, unsafe working conditions or forced increases in output, in order to increase production and profits.
"Are the mine bosses too busy pursuing profits to care about the lives and safety of black miners?" the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country's largest federation of labor unions, asked in a separate statement.
It noted that all but five of the dead miners were blacks, most of them migrant workers from neighboring countries, and said that "the continuing tragedy of the mining industry is that black miners are paying with their lives for the wealth and profits they do not share."
Danie Steyn, the minister of mining and energy affairs, said on visiting the mine that government engineers will begin an immediate investigation. "It was one of the very great disasters in our industry," Steyn said, "and a very, very great shock to all of us."
The five white victims of the disaster and their families were featured on South African television and radio and in the newspapers here; the 172 black victims were described in terms of the countries from which they came, such as Lesotho or Mozambique, or the tribal groups to which they belonged, such as Zulus or Xhosas, but without further information.
Two of the whites, a shift boss and a surveyor, died in heroic attempts to rescue the trapped miners, most of whom were blacks.
Mindful of the political implications of the accident, state-run Radio South Africa said early this morning in a commentary reflecting government views that such incidents "rarely occur" here and that the country's mines are the world's safest.
But an average of 600 miners die every year in the mines, and the International Labor Organization, in a highly critical study of South Africa's mine safety standards, reported recently that accident deaths totaled more than 8,500 between 1973 and 1984.
At Kinross, all the casualties were apparently caused by smoke inhalation rather than the underground fire itself. When the special sealant used on the damp mine walls began to burn, along with polyvinyl chloride pipes and plastic-coated wires, toxic fumes were produced that contained large amounts of cyanide and chlorine gases as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
Use of the polyurethane sealant on the mine's walls to control water seepage and corrosion seems likely to be the initial focus of the safety controversy, but larger issues are already being raised. Kobus Olivier, the Kinross general manager, told a press conference at the mine Wednesday that neither he nor his assistants were aware that the sealant was flammable and highly toxic when burned, although it had been used at the mine for six years.
Work crews were covering tunnel walls with the sealant Tuesday morning, according to mine officials, when a spark from a welding torch set fire to cylinders of oxygen and acetylene gas. The fire spread quickly to the mine walls and then to plastic-covered wires and pipes running through the mine tunnels.
Survivors said the mine quickly filled with dense smoke that made it not only difficult to breathe but, in the words of one miner, "seemed to fell men like so many trees--the smoke would hit them and they would fall on the spot."
"No one would have died if it weren't for the toxic substances," Olivier said. "No one died in the fire itself, no one was burned to death."
Rescue teams using special breathing apparatus brought out more than 2,200 miners in a dramatic daylong operation, and they continued the search on Wednesday for the men still missing.
Olivier acknowledged under questioning that Kinross had lost its top, five-star international safety rating last year and was downgraded to three stars. Of South Africa's 100 major mines, 82 take part in the rating system, and 25 have five-star ratings.
For a major mine like Kinross, which has 8,000 employees, a three-star rating implies serious safety problems.