Hundreds Saved In S. Africa Mine Collapse

Miners exit the mine after being trapped over night at the Elandsrand gold mine near Carletonville, South Africa, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007.
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
More than 1,700 scared, exhausted and hungry workers have been rescued after hours deep in a crippled South Africa gold mine during a dramatic all-night operation and efforts gathered speed Thursday to bring hundreds more to the surface.

There were no casualties when a pressurized air pipe snapped at the mine near Johannesburg and tumbled down a shaft, causing extensive damage to an elevator and trapping more than 3,000 miners Wednesday.

The hundreds of workers who remained underground were all near a ventilation shaft and had been given water - though no food for fear of provoking a scramble among miners who had been underground for nearly two days, according to Peter Bailey, health and safety chairman for the National Mineworkers Union.

The country's minerals and energy minister and the head of the mining company Harmony Gold Mining Co. vowed to improve safety in one of South Africa's most important industries.

"We have to recommit ourselves to refocus on safety in this country, our safety record both as a company and an industry leave much to be desired," Harmony chairman Patrice Motsepe said, according to the South African Press Association, as union officials accused the industry of taking short cuts on safety in the interest of profit.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reports that more than 200 miners were killed last year in South Africa. The government has mandated mine deaths be reduced by at least 20-percent this year, but there's no sign of them coming anywhere close to that figure.

At the mine, general manager Stan Bierschenk said that while morale was low underground, miners perked up as soon as they were rescued. He said most complained of heat exhaustion and fatigue.

Bierschenk said the company hoped to complete the rescue by lunchtime, although union official Bailey said late afternoon was more realistic.

Most of the workers were stranded one mile underground at the Elandsrand mine and had to be brought to the surface in a second, smaller cage in another shaft.

Mine officials blamed to accident on metal fatigue, but mine union officials expressed anger, reports CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.

"I think the lesson is that we need to put safety number one in planning and make sure that at all times people can be saved quickly," said Senzeni Zokwana, President of the South African Union of Mine Workers.

CBS News producer Sarah Carter says union officials complain that because the mines are operated 24 hours every day, there isn't enough time put into equipment maintenance. Carter says union members have been predicting an accident for some time.

Sethiri Thibile, one of the first miners rescued, clutched a cold beef sandwich and a bottle of water he was given when he reached the surface.

"I was hungry, though we were all hungry," said Thibile, 32, an engineering assistant who had been underground since 5 a.m. Wednesday. He said there was no food or water in the mine.

"Most of the people are scared and we also have some women miners there underground," said Thibile.