The death toll at the Phalaborwa Mines has risen to six as a fire broke out at the copper mine in Limpopo, according to South Africa's Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The miners say that the fire broke out early on Sunday morning at one of the conveyor belts underground. AMCU said that the fire started at 1.25 am at conveyor belt 5. A logistics belt operator saw the smoke and workers rushed to the nearest escape chamber‚ an emergency shelter installed underground.
AMCU deployed a team of rescuers from Burgersfort‚ more than two hours’ drive from the mine due to the local unit being unprepared to complete the rescue mission. The rescue efforts only started more than 11 hours after the emergency team were called.
Originally the company released a statement saying that two miners had died in the fire but later reissued a statement saying that the death toll had risen to 5, “We are saddened to provide an update that the rescue teams have recovered three more bodies of our colleagues‚ bringing the total of our colleagues who have lost lives to five. The management, rescue team, officials from DMR, and organised labour continue to work hard to rescue our one colleague who is still confined underground. More information will be shared with the media as the investigation unfolds.
“As the company‚ we reiterate that nothing is more important than health and safety of our employees and contractors. We ceaselessly strive to instil increased safety commitment from our employees. Palabora Copper is saddened by the incident‚ loss of lives and continues to grieve with the families. Our deepest condolences and sympathy are with the families during this moment of sadness," the mining company said.
ACMU rushed to the scene to carry out the rescue mission but were hindered by the rising temperatures in the mine that reached over 67 degrees Celsius. Rescuers attempted to go into the mine protected by ice jackets but their ventilation pipes had been damaged and the ice jackets only protected them from the heat for a short time. Rescuers managed to extinguish the biggest fires which lowered the temperatures but haven't been able to reach a smaller fire.
The whole company was brought to a standstill as authorities carried out their investigation by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) together with Cosatu's provincial secretary in Limpopo, Gerald Thwala. NUM have called on the department of mineral resources to increase their efforts to make mines safer for the mineworkers and to launch an investigation into the safety measures of the company immediately, adding that there has been no improvement in the death toll associated with mining accidents. NUM say this shows the "lack of commitment toward zero harm and zero death by the mining sector".