Wed 3 Oct 2007, 22:45 GMT
By Gershwin Wanneburg
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Some 3,200 miners were trapped deep underground in a South African gold mine on Wednesday and a union spokesman said they could be suffocating.
The miners at the Elandsrand mine were caught about 2.2 km down after a power cable to a lift broke at around 9:00 a.m. British time on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for owners Harmony Gold, the world's fifth biggest gold producer, said.
A National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman said the miners were trapped in a cramped space where temperatures could reach 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86-104 Fahrenheit).
"We are very worried because ... they might be suffocating," NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said. "There is no contact at the moment. That is our greatest worry."
He said although officials from Harmony Gold had made rescue plans, the union feared it might take 10 more hours before they got started.
Harmony spokeswoman Amelia Soares said mine engineers were trying to retrieve the workers by lowering an adjacent lift. The rescue operation could last well into Thursday morning, as it may only be possible to lift out a few hundred at a time.
"They were underground when the accident happened and they were not able to surface because an electric feeder cable that is connected to the mine lift was severed," Soares said.
Production at Elandsrand had been halted and would remain stopped on Thursday, she said.
There were varying reports on what exactly caused the incident.
The South African Press Association quoted Soares saying a 15 metre section of a compressed pipe column broke -- due to fatigue -- just below the shaft surface bank and fell to the bottom of the shaft used to carry men and materials.
Harmony Gold Mining American Depositary Receipts traded in New York fell sharply in the last hour of U.S. trading to end down 5.5 percent, at $10.46.
South African mines have worked hard to improve safety since the end of the apartheid era, when labour laws were far more slack.
But unions say the mining companies are still not doing enough to ensure workers' safety. The mines' safety records have come under close scrutiny over the past few months after a series of accidents.
The government briefly closed an AngloGold Ashanti mine in July after two miners were killed in a rock fall.
China holds the record for the largest number of people killed in a mining disaster. On April 26, 1942, 1,572 people died in a coal dust explosion at the Honkeiko coal mine.
© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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