Euphoria and sadness as miners taste freedom

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The Independent Online

It was a day of euphoria and grief for two Australian miners who finally saw daylight after two weeks trapped half a mile underground but within a few hours were mourning the death of a colleague who died when the mine caved in.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, punched the air as they emerged from the Beaconsfield gold mine in northern Tasmania just before dawn. The pair had spent a fortnight trapped 3,000ft down in a small wire safety cage, as rescue teams drilled through 45ft of solid rock to reach them.

Yesterday they both underwent medical checks at a hospital in the nearby town of Launceston. Mr Russell discharged himself after a few hours, after eating a hearty meal of steak and eggs, and in the afternoon attended Larry Knight's funeral at a Launceston church. Mr Knight, 44, died when an earthquake caused the rock fall on 25 April that trapped his colleagues. The two men were feared dead too, until a thermal imaging camera located them five days later.

The progress of the rescuers had been followed around the nation and, yesterday morning, television networks cut live to the news that they were finally free. Hundreds of well-wishers who had gathered at the mine erupted in cheers as the men emerged, their head torches still glowing. They hugged family and friends before clambering into two ambulances.

A fire engine drove through Beaconsfield, a small mining town, with its siren wailing, while a church bell not used since the end of the Second World War rang out. The Prime Minister, John Howard, hailed the rescue effort and the men's survival as "a wonderful demonstration of Australian mateship".

Mr Knight was a keen biker, and a Christian motorcycle club escorted his coffin to the cemetery. Graham Mulligan, a spokesman for the club, said: "There's not many things in life that take us through so many emotions at the same time.

"This whole ordeal has taken us from horror to shock, grief, sadness, joy and happiness, and then back to sadness again."

Last night Mr Russell enjoyed a bourbon and Coke at his local pub, the Club Hotel, which was pouring free beer for patrons. It was not clear yesterday whether Mr Webb had also attended the funeral service. The two men are believed to be negotiating a lucrative deal to sell their story.

The future of the mine, meanwhile, is in doubt. It will remain closed for at least a month while a safety inspection is carried out.