More than 1,500 trapped gold miners have been rescued during a dramatic all-night operation and efforts gathered speed Thursday to bring hundreds more terrified and exhausted workers to the surface.
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About 3,200 miners were trapped Wednesday when a pressurized air pipe snapped and tumbled down a shaft, causing extensive damage to steel work and an elevator, said the mine's chief operating officer, Alwin Pretorius.
Most of the workers were stranded a kilometer and a half - or one mile - underground and had to be brought to the surface in a second, smaller cage in another shaft. About 340 are farther down in the shaft, which has a total depth of 3,100 meters, or 10,230 feet.
Sethiri Thibile, one of the first miners rescued, 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 5 a.m. Wednesday. 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.
One miner, who did not wish to give his name, said that conditions underground were deteriorating. He said the men were trapped in a confined area that stunk of urine and feces.
By 9 a.m. Thursday (0800GMT), more than 1,500 had been rescued from Harmony Gold Mining Co.'s Elandsrand Mine, the company said.
General manager Stan Bierschenk said that while morale was low underground, miners perked up as soon as they were rescued. He said most complained of heat exhaustion and fatigue.
There were no injuries and there was no immediate danger to any of the workers, company and union officials said.
"The speed which people coming up has improved. It is no longer a snail's pace," said Peter Bailey, health and safety chairman for the National Mineworkers Union.
He said all those who were rescued were in good health, even though many had been underground for 28 hours.
"They are very, very stressed and tired and very relieved to be out," Bailey said.