WELKOM, South Africa — An accident in a South African gold mine Monday that may have been caused by an explosion killed at least eight miners and left 42 missing and feared dead as workers across the country returned to work after a 21-day mine strike.
The accident occurred as a high-speed elevator was taking miners to work in the No. 10 shaft of the General Mining Corp.'s St. Helena gold mine, 160 miles southwest of Johannesburg, for the first full morning shift since the nation's costliest strike ended, mine officials said.
Mine director Gary Maude, who was supervising rescue operations, said a specially trained rescuer lowered on a rope reached a pump station 2,300 feet underground in the mine shaft 13 hours after the accident.
The rescuer found the bodies of eight men and pulled five others who survived to the surface one by one, Maude said.
"Five miners are alive," Maude told reporters. "The death toll there appears to be eight."
An elevator cage thought to have been carrying the 42 missing miners--37 blacks and five whites--may be buried under a pile of rubble and twisted steel at the bottom of the 4,500-foot shaft, the mine director said.
"I do not think there is much chance of any survival if the cage went to the bottom," Maude said.
Mine officials wavered throughout the day on the cause of the accident, initially reporting an explosion in the mine shaft, later saying they were uncertain if a blast occurred, then saying it appeared an explosion had taken place.
Company spokesman Harry Hill said, "There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this was sabotage."
Maude said the rescued men showed signs of burns, strengthening the possibility of a blast.
"It certainly seems to be coming down towards an explosion, but we are still not able to say what type of explosion--explosives, methane gas or whatever," he told reporters shortly before midnight.
Maude said there was no trace of a dynamite blast and no confirmation of a methane gas explosion. Methane, often released in coal mines, is seldom found in gold mines.
He said that a special television camera will be lowered down the shaft during the night in search of the elevator cage.
"If the cage is jammed in the shaft, we should be able to pick it up on the camera. It will also give us a better idea of the amount of damage we will have to cope with to mount a rescue," he said.
One of Worst Accidents
The mining accident could be the worst in South Africa since September, 1986, when 177 men died in an underground fire in the company's Kinross gold mine east of Johannesburg. Several Kinross officials still face trial on charges of negligence.
Marcel Golding, deputy leader of the black National Union of Mineworkers, said the incident was the third major accident at a Gencor mine in less than a year.
"It is becoming patently clear that Gencor's safety practices are atrocious," Golding said in Johannesburg. "This accident confirms the NUM's belief that South Africa's mines are the least safe, the most dangerous, in the world."
In April of this year, a gas explosion killed 34 miners in the General Mining Corp.'s Trans-Natal Colliery.
Spokesmen for other mining companies said Monday that employees began returning to work Sunday night and Monday after union leaders agreed with mine owners on a settlement ending a strike by up to 340,000 men at 44 gold and coal mines.
The strike ended Sunday when NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa and other union leaders, in the face of accelerating dismissals, accepted an offer that he and the union rank and file had rejected five days earlier.