Hunt for corpses in black slime: Scores died after a dam wall broke and sludge swept through a gold-mining town, writes John Carlin in Virginia, South Africa

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The Independent Online
'IT WAS like lava from a volcano.' 'It was like a flood, a flood of black slime.' 'It was like the end of the world had come.'

Survivors of a mining disaster in which 13 people are known to have died and 56 were still missing last night, slopped in and out of their devastated homes covered in dark grey sludge trying to salvage what possessions they could. Search parties of police, soldiers and firemen waded waist- high through a huge black, viscous lake covering the once leafy little suburb of Merriespruit, in the mining town of Virginia, 180 miles south of Johannesburg. A team of sniffer dogs was brought in yesterday as well as helicopters fitted with sonar devices which hovered over a scene as eerie with death as a muddy First World War battleground.

Police said they were looking for corpses, not living people. The dead so far include an 18-month-old child and a 71- year-old man. At least 80 houses were destroyed, and 200 rendered uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, at the Koornfontein colliery at Middelburg, Transvaal, efforts were under way last night to rescue 19 miners trapped by an underground fire.

The Virginia catastrophe struck at 9pm on Tuesday when part of a wall of a vast reservoir broke, unleashing a 6ft-high torrent of slime, the chemical residue of the gold- mining process, against the houses on the edge of the suburb, 300 yards away.

The flood tore on, cutting a lethal swath 400 yards wide through Merriespruit, demolishing homes, sweeping away people, dogs and cats, lorries and cars, knocking over trees, and stopping its march only at a swampy stretch of low-lying ground 1 1/2 miles on.

'We were sitting watching TV when we heard what sounded like the sea coming, like a big frightening wave,' said Sean White, 20, a fitter at a nearby mine. 'I looked outside and I saw cars speeding down the road, but not going straight, like swirling round and round in circles. I even saw a fire-truck - it must have travelled a kilometre. The mud then poured in through the windows up to my waist. I told everybody, there were seven of us from my family, we must climb on the roof. So I went up and pulled everybody up.

'Then, when we were all safe, I went down to see if I could help anybody. It took me four hours to cover three blocks, with mud up to my neck. I found two little kids on a roof and they said their mother and father were still in the house. I went in and I found them both dead. The man's arm had been amputated. I suppose a piece of a window smashed through and cut it off.' Half-a-mile away, Vic Mayhew, a retired television repairman, pointed to what remained of his house across 300 yards of slime now only knee-deep. He had recovered three grey mattresses, a grey washing machine and some grey chairs.

'There were five of us. What we did was we swam through that stuff, we aquaplaned, for what seemed like hours till we made it here to dry land. We left our two dogs behind - an Alsatian and a corgi - and we thought they were dead but then we found them next morning. They'd swum behind us.'

JOHANNESBURG - The South African government yesterday offered a new proposal to the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, on the future of the Zulu nation after the April elections, South African Television reported, AFP reports.

It said that delegations representing the two sides expressed 'cautious optimism' over the deal but refused to comment after a two-day meeting in a Cape hotel.