Vintage: The 1986 Kinross gold mine fire in South Africa killed 177 people
On 16 September 1986, 177 mineworkers were killed at Kinross Mine in one of South Africa's worst mine disasters since 1946. An underground fire started by an acetylene tank caused the death of the miners. Another 235 miners were injured in the incident, one of the largest mining incidents in South Africa. On 16 September 1986, 177 mineworkers were killed at Kinross Mine in one of South Africa's worst mine disasters since 1946. An acetylene tank sparked flames that swept through the mining tunnel igniting plastic covering on the wiring. The flames also set fire to polyurethane foam that is used to keep walls in the mine dry. The burning plastic combined with polyurethane and churned toxic fumes that filled the shafts, choking miners to death. A welder's spark ignited plastic foam lining the walls of a tunnel, starting the fire which resulted in one of the worst disasters in mining history. The foam is used to stop water seepage but contains a sealant called Rigiseal which gives off poisonous fumes when it burns. The chemical was banned from use in British pits, at the time of the incident and later barred in Australia. The fire spread rapidly and a spokesman for the mine's owners confirmed many of those killed had little chance of escaping. Relatives of survivors reported that some of the injured miners saw badly burned victims lying over a mile-long stretch of the horizontal tunnel. Barbara Tarran quoted her husband, Billy, a survivor, as saying, "There were bodies piled up on the tracks. Men were lying with blood coming out of their mouths." She said her husband "saw a lot of men fall down the shaft because they panicked when the [elevator] cage came down and did not pick them up." More than 2 200 miners were evacuated from the area after the accident.
Kobus Olivier, general manager of the Kinross Gold Mine in the eastern Transvaal, about 70 miles southeast of Johannesburg, said the company did not know the foam sealant was flammable. He said that when it was installed six years ago, "the need didn't exist" to determine whether it would emit highly toxic fumes if it was set ablaze. He said that other materials, including plastic cable conduits, were also set on fire by flames from an acetylene cylinder and that they could have contributed toxic fumes. “I think most of those killed succumbed to the toxic fumes in or near their place of normal work,” he said. A British man working at the mine said, “They didn't stand a chance; they were trapped by the smoke.” Apart from the 177 mine workers killed, 235 were injured and one was reported missing. The Kinross mine disaster is one of the worst gold mine disasters in South African history.
After the disaster, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) complained about low safety standards in the mines and organised a protest. The South African National Union of Mineworkers accused the owners of Kinross of not paying enough attention to the safety of their employees. The union leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, said the disaster could have been avoided. “We are horrified that this type of accident can take place in this day and age in the mining industry. In our view we are obviously back to the dark ages of mining and there doesn't seem to be much improvement in safety standards,” he said.
The Congress of South Africans Trade Unions established a national health and safety day in recognition of the tragedy. On 1 October 1986, mine workers staged one of the largest protests in country. Workers stayed away from work and others held memorial services to mourn those who died in the mine accident.
This mining disaster, one of South Africa’s worst, left the misery and mourning of the loss of so many friends, colleagues and family members in its wake. Within a day of the accident, the then Chamber of Mines established a Hazardous Material Unit as part of its research arm. And this unit’s work led to the withdrawal of many potentially toxic plastics from underground mines. Consequently, these materials were replaced with similar but safer products. It is also a regulatory requirement for mine equipment, where feasible, to be built and fitted with non-flammable materials as well as flame retardants. As an added measure, the country’s gold mines were equipped with self-contained self-rescue equipment.
The establishment of the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC), recommended by the Leon Commission of Inquiry of 1993, identified the lack of an on-site emergency response plan as a key area of concern underground. As a result, the Mining Regulation Advisory Committee commissioned the compilation of guidelines for the Mandatory Code of Practice for Emergency Preparedness and Response. Early and effective underground fire control is now possible through advanced and continuous mine-monitoring control systems coupled with fire detection and suppression systems. In 2014, the Mine Health and Safety Act Regulations relating to Rescue, First Aid, Emergency Preparedness and Response were amended, further leading to the introduction of refuge bays and self-contained rescuers. These refuge bays are equipped with respirable air, potable water, ablution facilities, illumination, first-aid equipment and a robust communication system that connects to surface.
The value of these safety improvements was clearly demonstrated in 2015 when an underground fire broke out at Harmony’s Kusasalethu Mine. Mineworkers were able to seek shelter in refuge bays while the fire was successfully contained by Mine Rescue Services. Although the fire took place 2 300 metres below surface, no lives were lost and 486 employees were brought safely to surface.
Sources: The Minerals Council South Africa, BBC, Washington Post