New bid to reach missing miners
Todd Russell, top left, one of the trapped miners, mine manager Matthew Gill and Beaconsfield mine. Photos: Peter Mathew and The Examiner
Rescuers were tonight frantically digging a new tunnel in a fresh bid to reach two miners missing in a Tasmanian goldmine, after one of their mates was found dead today.
But with the tunnelling expected to take up to three days, hopes were fading for the two men unaccounted for.
The three miners were trapped by rock falls at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine in northern Tasmania on Tuesday night.
The body of one miner, still unidentified, was located by remote-controlled cameras early today under a rock fall and was expected to be retrieved tonight.
Nothing has been heard of the other two men, both experienced miners.
However, coroner Peter Wilson tonight said the operation was still a rescue mission.
"One lives with hope and while we should be prepared for the worst, I think we should hope for the best," he said.
The rock falls were sparked by seismic events geophysicists suspect were caused by the mine operation itself.
Trapped one kilometre underground were Beaconsfield man Todd Russell, a footballer and father of three in his 30s, Brant Webb, 37, from nearby Beauty Point, and Larry Knight, in his 30s, from Youngstown in Launceston.
But in an ordeal for the families, authorities could not immediately confirm the identity of the dead miner. Identification is not expected until tomorrow.
"They know one man's dead," Australian Workers' Union (AWU) national vice-president Paul Howes said.
"They're not sure who that man is and they don't know if it's their father, their brother or if it's their husband that's lying down there. It's just getting harder and harder."
Rescue teams located the dead miner at 7.22am (AEST) after the operator of a camera-equipped earth-moving machine unknowingly transferred his body to a rock stockpile, Mr Wilson said.
Remote-controlled machines have been used to try to dig through the rock falls because conditions are too dangerous for rescuers.
But tonight mine manager Matthew Gill said that rescue method was no longer appropriate.
He said a new rescue bid would be launched by digging a new, horizontal tunnel around the blocked area.
However Mr Wilson warned: "It could take up to three days."
All three miners had been working on an eleganter machine at the time of the incident, placing wire mesh designed to prevent rock falls in the tunnel.
Excavation work uncovered the rear of the machine the miners had been working on but tonnes of fallen rocks have prevented further excavation and forced rescue crews to dig a new tunnel around the blocked area.
"That now provides the only really feasible access to the machine, that is without recklessly endangering other people's lives," Mr Wilson said.
This week's tragedy is the second seismic event to have affected the mine's operation since October last year.
Union officials warned investigations into the incident could produce more questions into the mine's safety procedures.
"We had major concerns following the seismic activity that took place last October," Mr Howes said.
"Our membership informed us that they think a lot of their concerns that they have raised with management between that time and now weren't addressed."
Former worker at the mine Marta Pfab said Todd Russell had raised issues of safety with mine management before the tragedy but found it like "talking to a brick wall".
Mr Howes said the safety issues could signal the end for the Beaconsfield Gold Mine, which revitalised the 1000-strong town when it reopened in 1979, after being closed in 1914.
"It's a real prospect that this mine will shut down," he said.
AWU members will meet mine management tomorrow afternoon to raise their concerns but Mr Howes said locating the remaining two trapped men remained a priority.
However, he conceded the situation did not look good. "Things are looking pretty bleak and pretty grim, there's no way to mince your words about that," he said.
Community in shock
Fellow miner Chris Mackay, a friend of the three, said the community was in shock.
"It's shattering news for the families and the people who work there, and for myself, I'm still pretty well in shock now," he told the Nine Network.
"We always hold out hope. Till the fat lady sings you do everything you can. They're your mates, you gotta go and get 'em."
Mr Mackay was not in the mine at the time of the rock fall, but said "it would've been very scary indeed".
He said he would miss his mates.
"It's not a nice scenario at all. They were good blokes, real good blokes, and they were my mates and I'll miss 'em. So will everybody else."
West Tamar Mayor Barry Easther said the miners' families were being looked after.
"It's dreadfully sad for everyone involved," Mr Easther said.
"The [Tasmanian] Department of Justice has assumed control of the site," Mr Gill said. "The coroner has also been notified."
Mr Gill said the miners' families had been notified and counselling was being provided to them and the miners' colleagues.
"I am not in a position to make any further comment at this time."
Tasmania's Deputy Premier and Mines Minister Barry Green has promised a full inquiry into the accident.
"The mine will not reopen until it's deemed safe," he said.
The Australian Workers Union said today its members would not return to work until the operations were safe.
Mr Green said the length of the rescue operation had compounded the community's anguish but mine management could not put rescue teams at risk by rushing the operation.
"Of course, it's a grim situation," he said.
Mining tragedy timeline
- Tuesday, April 25, 9.30pm (AEST): A rock fall occurs at the Beaconsfield mine, 40 kilometres north-west of Launceston, with 17 miners underground. Fourteen make it to a safety chamber and escape unhurt. Three men remain trapped, sparking a large search and rescue mission.
- Wednesday, April 26, 4.45pm: A remote-controlled heavy earth-moving loader fitted with two cameras is ready for testing at the mine.
- 7.40pm: Testing of loader completed.
- 9.15pm: Loader begins work in first rock fall area, 925 metres below the surface.
- Thursday, April 27, 1.50am: Loader removes an unmanned Nissan Patrol which was blocking access to the rock fall.
- 2.30am: Loader starts removing the first of two known rock falls in the mine.
- 7am: Loader begins removing rock from the second rock fall area, where the three men were last seen.
- 7.22am: Body of an unnamed miner is found. The search continues for the two other miners.