Conrad Mupesa Mashonaland West Bureau
Relatives, friends and colleagues of five artisanal miners currently trapped underground at Task Mining Syndicate, 18km north of Chegutu, remain optimistic their loved ones will be pulled out alive.
Although it is now 11 days since the accident, they refuse to lose hope and continue digging.
Despite a sombre atmosphere presently engulfing the mining site and the unsuccessful search and rescue efforts, the air of hope is also unmistakable.
The five include father and stepson Mr Crynos Nyamukanga (43) and Mr Tariro Dzinoreva (40), who are both experienced artisanal miners. Other trapped miners are Munashe Nyamukanga (17) and Shingai Gwatidzo (19), both Form Four students who are expected to write their Ordinary Level examinations this December. They sought employment to raise money for school fees and clothes.
The fifth trapped miner, Charles Mutume (31), was new in the area having just arrived from Mutare to the Task Mining Syndicate hoping to raise money to send back home to his wife and two children.
The miners were trapped when a shaft collapsed on them just after they had been lowered into the shaft by a hoist.
One of the last people to see the trapped workers, Mr Lawrence Matorere, a timber-man who is helping in the rescue efforts narrated the ordeal.
“The five had been underground for approximately three hours when my fellow timber-man, Tariro Dzinoreva signalled using the hosepipe communication system to Crynos Nyamukanga explaining about a barricaded movement and a crater at level 2 which is about 140 metres away. Mr Nyamukanga then went down to investigate and map a possible way forward.
“Approximately five minutes after (Nyamukanga) had entered into the shaft; there was a strange and mysterious whirlwind that passed through the mining area around 4pm. This was then followed by a deafening sound and large cloud of dust coming from the tunnel they had used including six other surrounding ones,” he said.
That sound and the large ball of dust that rose signalled the collapse of a shaft that was a source of income to thousands of youths over the past two years. Thus began in earnest the search as both artisanal miners and syndicate management sprang into action to try and rescue the trapped men.
He said the collapse covered roughly 85 metres of the shaft with boulders and earth.
“Since September 8, we have been battling and taking turns to rescue our colleagues although it has not been easy. Since the day of the collapse, we have been working in Level Two where the five had been working and we suspect they are trapped in one of the various tunnels.
“To access the collapsed shaft, we are entering the ground using an adjacent shaft where we have been digging, timbering and installing reinforcements to gain access to the other side of the shaft. These efforts seek to cut 10 metres below but at the same time leaving no room for boulders and earth from falling down,” he said.
Mr Temson Musonza, the shaft owner, who was subcontracted by Task Mining Syndicate two years ago, said he had suspended operations in April and had only resumed mining this month, hiring the five a day prior to the incident.
“Today (Friday) is day 10 as we try to rescue the five using a different shaft. The efforts are also being hampered by the unavailability of resources and manpower. Some of the rescuers have families to feed and were promised some pay-outs by Task Mining Syndicate management which has not materialised.
“I am pleading with the Government to provide assistance so that we can help these trapped miners,” he said.
In all this rescue attempt, the teams are not sure where exactly these miners are located.
However, the Chegutu District Civil Protection Unit believes that despite the slow-paced efforts, the trapped miners will be found.
District Coordinator head, Mr Tariro Tomu said they had scaled up efforts to find the men while taking precautions to avoid further losses by volunteers so that they do not endanger their lives as they manoeuvre the 135-metre deep shaft.
“As the Civil Protection Unit, we have involved all the necessary departments to ensure that the workers are found. We are equally worried as the CPU concerning the rescue efforts but, we are working under the guidance of the Ministry of Mines which is working with the rescuers to avoid further accidents. We are hopeful that the five will be found alive.
“The Ministry of Mines advised the use of manual methods in retrieving the five as using machinery to reach 100 metres is practically impossible,” he said.
He added that while efforts to rescue the five were in progress it was important for the families and relatives of the trapped to remain calm and supportive.
“We have also engaged various players including the Ministry of Mines and the business communities in raising food for the camped relatives and other artisanal miners providing rescue efforts.”
So far, the families have been provided with maize-meal, cabbages and cooking oil, among other food items although it is not enough to cover all meals.
The rescue team is hoping to rope in mining giant, Zimplats with its underground knowledge and equipment to help in the search.
Headman Nyamukanga, Mr Simon Tobias Nyamukanga, whose two sons are trapped underground, has since approached Chief Ngezi to try and rope in Zimplats.
“My 43-year-old son Crynos, and his son Munashe (17) are among those trapped. I have been here since the first day, but the rescue efforts are rather worrying. The mine owners should just come clean on their failures so that we will engage renowned and well-known mines like Zimplats for the rescue efforts. The Government should take over the process henceforth,” he said.
Headman Nyamukanga is contemplating conducting a traditional ceremony to appease the spirits so that rescue efforts become easy and smooth.
He said the current disharmony prevailing between the rescue teams was a bad omen on all the countless efforts currently at hand called for a night vigil to appease the spirits of the land.
Ms Elizabeth Nyirenda, Crynos’ wife, concurred with her father-in-law saying there was need to increase the number of rescuers to expedite the mission.
“With this slow pace and the narration we were given regarding the accident, hopes of seeing my husband are now close to nothing. I now pray that we will be able to have their bodies for burial back home,” she said as she wiped tears running down her cheeks.
The 40-year-old woman also envisaged an unpredictable future in which she is expected to take care of their six children.
“My husband was the breadwinner and regardless of having been affected by the drought just like any family this last summer cropping season, he made sure we were food secure through artisanal mining,” she said, adding that she had no idea that her son was also an artisanal miner.
“Munashe was invited by my husband to work as a cook three months ago. Since then, he never brought any money home and I was not aware that he had joined the underground teams.”
Charles Mutume’s brother, Tendai who travelled from Mutare on Thursday to join her 60-year-old mother, encouraged the local traditional chiefs to join the rescue team.
While he hoped to find his young brother alive, he begged the Government to intervene.
Mr Admire Gwatidzo, Shingai’s father, blamed Task Mine for taking too long in providing assistance to the trapped workers.
“They recently announced that there shall be two rescue shifts but it is taking long to put another team. Since the first team came out, we have been waiting patiently for the second team to get inside.
“The team is saying they are still waiting for reinforcement rods that the management has gone to buy in Chegutu some five hours ago despite being a 15-minute drive journey,” he said with watery eyes.
However, speaking after an eight-member team had entered the shaft to attempt yet another rescue effort on Thursday afternoon, the mine’s secretary for safety, Mr Abia Mujere and the manager, Mr Annanias Mudavanhu concurred that the slow-paced efforts were aimed at not leaving any chance of possible recurrence of the same accident.
Notwithstanding their sometimes rogue and unruly behaviour, other artisanal members have been joining family members for prayer session daily.
They said although the efforts were taking long, they were optimistic of finding the five alive.