Miners freed after fortnight underground

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Two Australian gold miners trapped half a mile underground for the past fortnight were finally freed last night after rescuers managed to cut upwards through the final chunk of rock separating them from the men.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, who had been feared dead a fortnight ago, emerged wearing their mining helmets with lamps still shining, punching the air as their wives ran up to hug them. They removed their identity tags from outside the mine, officially ending their shift, and sat in the back of ambulances, laughing with rescuers before being driven past crowds of people from Beaconsfield, Tasmania to hospital.

The tricky and perilous operation to reach the pair, who had been confined in a steel cage beneath tons of fallen rock since 25 April, gripped the nation. An earthquake that caused the rockfall at the Beaconsfield mine in northern Tasmania had killed one of their colleagues, Larry Knight. The discovery five days later that the two of them were alive was hailed as a miracle ­ but the excruciating saga of the efforts to free them had only just begun. During those five days the pair survived on a cereal bar and by licking water that seeped through the rocks. After a thermal imaging camera located them 3,000 feet underground, rescuers began passing them food and water through a plastic pipe forced through a hole drilled in the rock.

After that they were able to enjoy all sorts of delicacies, including omelettes and soup. Mike Lester, a mine spokesman, said the two had joked that "if they keep eating as well as they have, the tunnel will have to be greased to get them out".

Mr Webb and Mr Russell, who suffered only scratches when the mine collapsed, spread grout over loose rocks beneath their cage to stabilise the ground and prevent fresh rock falls.

Mr Lester said the team of specialist hard-rock miners drilled vertically up towards the two from a horizontal tunnel. With probes drilled into the cavity the remaining rock was carefully cut using pneumatic drills and diamond-tipped chainsaws. The final stage had been ­ as expected ­ difficult and dangerous. The team had to dig through rock five times harder than concrete. One mining official noted that attacking it with jackhammers was "as useless as throwing paper tissues at it". When rescuers reached them, Mr Webb and Mr Russell were guided down the short vertical tunnel and along the 48ft horizontal tunnel to a main mine shaft.

Mr Knight's family, meanwhile, was planning to hold his funeral today in the town of Launceston. They had delayed it, hoping that his two colleagues could attend, but decided they could not postpone it any longer. Mr Knight, 44, was working in the same tunnel as the other two when the earthquake happened. Mr Gill said the two survivors hoped to attend the funeral.