3,000 South African miners trapped as lift shaft collapses

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Concerns were growing last night for more than 3,000 workers trapped 1.2 miles underground for 15 hours inside a South African goldmine after a burst water pipe caused a lift to fail.

No injuries had been reported and an official with the Harmony Gold's Elandsrand Mine said the company would be able to free the trapped workers over the next 24 hours.

A spokesman for the company said miners would be evacuated over the course of today using a smaller cage in another shaft, but the process would be a slow one. "It's a case of getting a large number of people up in cages," the spokesman said.

But last night, a spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) expressed concern that the miners had spent almost a day in a cramped underground space where temperatures could reach 30 to 40 Celsius (86-104 Fahrenheit), out of contact with the outside world.

"The only exit is blocked, probably by a fall of ground... We are very worried because... they might be suffocating," the spokesman said. "There is no contact at the moment. That is our greatest worry." The NUM said the shaft had "not been maintained for ages".

Peter Bailey, of the NUM, who was at the scene, said: "Some of these mineworkers started duty on Tuesday evening it is now Wednesday night and they are still underground."

Gold mine shafts in South Africa are among the deepest in the world, in some cases more than a mile underground. Last year, 199 mineworkers died in accidents, mostly rock falls, the government Mine Health and Safety Council reported in September.