Vintage: Vaal Reefs Elevator Disaster, Orkney, 1995
On 10 May 1995, 105 gold miners perished at the Anglo-American Corporation’s Vaal Reefs Mine near Orkney, southwest of Johannesburg. Even a nation hardened to mining tragedy was horrified by the gruesome disaster at one of South Africa’s largest and most profitable gold mines. Miners had finished their shift in the sweltering depths of the 2,3km Shaft Number Two and were returning to the surface in an elevator cage. High above, their fate was sealed when an underground train entered a tunnel that was supposed to be closed, went out of control and careered into the shaft. The falling train hit elevator cables, sending the cage plunging downwards in free fall. A second after it hit bottom, the heavy locomotive smashed into the already compressed cage and further reduced the substantial two-tier structure to what the President of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) later described as ‘a one-floor tin box’. The occupants were pulverised, body parts were scattered everywhere and identifying individuals proved to be a long and distressing process. Two days after the accident a representative of Anglo-American grimly told a press conference, “The bodies are badly mutilated, it’s hot and they’re beginning to decompose”. The NUM established a trust fund for dependents of victims, who were located as far apart as the rural areas of Lesotho, Transkei, Swaziland and Botswana.
The one person who did actually survive the catastrophic accident was the driver of the runaway train, who managed to jump clear before it toppled into Shaft Number Two and fell towards the rapidly ascending elevator cage.
In an article published on Friday 12 May 1995 The Independent ran the headline, “Locomotive crushes 105 gold miners”. The article follows below: Rescue teams toiled more than a mile underground yesterday to recover the bodies of 105 miners crushed to death by a runaway locomotive in South Africa's worst mining disaster for almost a decade. Mangled remains wrapped in grey blankets were slowly being passed to the surface at the Vaal Reefs gold mine in Orkney, 95 miles south of Johannesburg. Some bundles took up barely a quarter of a stretcher.
The miners, all believed to be black, were killed when a 12-ton locomotive broke through safety barriers and fell into a lift shaft, landing on the cage in which the men were being winched to the surface. The train and cage plunged 1 500 feet to the bottom of the Number Two shaft, 6 900 feet underground. The impact reduced the 10ft tall cage to half its size. One official described it as a “tin box”.
Spokesmen for Anglo-American, the owner of the Vaal Reefs mine, were at a loss to explain how the locomotive, used to ferry men, equipment and ore along underground galleries, burst through at least four levels of safety. The mystery was deepened by the fact that the driver managed to jump off before the crash. Without a driver, the train should have come to a stop. As the government announced an inquiry and a union leader demanded new safety standards, President Nelson Mandela said the accident was “deeply shocking to the whole nation”.
The Mineral and Energy Affairs Minister, Pik Botha, visited the underground site of the accident and, upon emerging back on the surface said, “It is the most gruesome sight I have ever seen.” His face and overalls dirty and his voice cracking with emotion, he added, “It is something I will never forget.”
Mr Botha said rescue workers trying to cut bodies out of the crushed lift cage were working under extremely difficult conditions. “At the moment they are cutting through the cage with blowtorches and they must take out a hand here, a foot there and bits of body and wrap it all up and bring it up to the surface.” He added, “It was immensely sad to see human flesh mingled with steel two kilometres underground. And that is their grave. I wonder what must have gone through their minds.”
The last mining tragedy of similar magnitude occurred in 1986 when 177 workers lost their lives in a fire at the Kinross gold mine. An investigation showed that fire was the result of the mining company using practices that had been banned in other countries.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) yesterday demanded action. “There has [sic] been too many mining disasters too often in the history of our country. Since 1909 alone, 13 mining disasters have been recorded. This emphasises the need for an urgent and ongoing Commission of Inquiry into safety regimes on the mines and for new and stringent regulation to bring the sorry train of death and injury to an end,” the ANC said.
More than 69 000 miners have been killed and more than a million injured in South African mines from 1909 to 1994. According to the Ministry of Mineral and Energy Affairs, the number of deaths has been declining since 1993.
Black workers have been the core of the mine labour force. Under apartheid, the safety of the seemingly endless supply of cheap labour was considered secondary to profits.
Sources: Devastating Disasters and The Independent