Miners trapped for a week must wait 48 hours for rescue

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Two Australian miners trapped nearly half a mile underground for more than a week may have to wait another two days before rescuers complete the tricky and perilous task of boring through 40ft of solid rock to reach them.

Todd Russell, 35, and Brant Webb, 37, appeared in remarkably good spirits yesterday, exchanging banter with the rescue team through a narrow pipe, via which they have been passed food, water, emergency blankets batteries for their helmet lamps, magazines and dry clothing.

The manager of the Tasmanian gold mine, Matthew Gill, said the pair had been asking about the football scores, joking about the back-pay they would be owed, and demanding meat pies instead of high- energy biscuits. He said Mr Russell had resigned from his job, requesting a newspaper so that he could scan the situations vacant. "Todd Russell said: 'I've had enough. You can take your job, I don't want it'," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. "And Brant Webb agreed." Mr Russell's first words to his rescuers were to the point: "It's cold and cramped in here. Get us out."

The men have been huddled inside a steel safety cage since the roof of the tunnel in which they were working collapsed after a small earthquake on Tuesday last week. One of their colleagues, Larry Knight, was killed, and they were feared dead until a remote-control camera found them on Sunday, causing elation in the mining town of Beaconsfield.

For the past eight days, the men - both of whom are married with small children - have been living in a space measuring 6ft 7 inches (2 metres) long, 4ft wide and 5ft high. They can crawl out into a small gap between the cage and the rock wall, but are unable to stand up.

The pair were protected by a large slab of rock which fell on to the cage preventing them from being engulfed by debris."They can open one of the doors of the cage, they've got a little bit of movement, perhaps about a metre or so," said Bill Shorten, national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union. "So there is little bit of room to move but they are not out there doing callisthenics."

Rescuers will use specialised machinery to bore a tunnel through the tons of collapsed rock - a method that is relatively slow but considered safer than drilling and blasting with explosives. Relief workers are fearful of setting off a fresh rock fall that could bury them or the men, and say the operation could take up to 48 hours.

Mr Gill said: "The conditions are very difficult and very dangerous. People should not underestimate the difficulties in getting them out safely. We are going as fast as we can, but safety is paramount. They are hydrated, well fed and receiving medical advice and are in good spirits. We will not rush."

The incident has raised questions about the safety of working practices at the century-old gold mine.

The men are expected to emerge without major health problems, according to Andrew Hughes, director of Tasmanian Medical Retrieval Services. He said they had minor injuries to their hands from trying to dig themselves out, and one had his leg pinned under a rock for a few hours, but managed to free it.

Mr Russell's mother, Kaye, said: "Todd's putting in for meal allowance, overtime pay and living away from home allowance, so I hope they've got their chequebook ready."