Sunday, January 31, 2021 4:20 pm
By Owei Lakemfa
If you have ever been trapped in a lift; lights suddenly going off, darkness everywhere and perhaps having to breathe with others trapped in the lift, you will know how harrowing an experience it can be. But at least people know you are there and efforts are made to rescue you with the lift door being forced open to let you out even if it had stopped in-between floors.
However, this type of experience, pales into insignificance if you were working 600 metres or 2,000 feet beneath the earth surface and there is a sudden and massive explosion entombing you. Unlike the lift experience where help is likely to reach you in minutes, in this case, hope is almost lost as you can be trapped for days or weeks and even rescuers on ground, not to talk about your family, may have no idea you are alive. It is simply a nightmare.
That was the experience of some Chinese miners on duty at the Hushan Gold Mine near Yantai, Shandong province, one of the 32,000 non-coal mines in the country. Sunday, January 10, 2021 was a normal labour day as 22 of them worked on the shift. Then, there was a sudden, unexplained explosion which severely damaged the entrance, cutting off communication.
For one week, there was no sign of life and it was largely assumed the miners were dead. But in their entombment, every day, one member of the group would knock on a drill pipe that led to the surface. Then on Sunday January 17, as one of them, Mr. Wang Kang, knocked on the pipe five times, indicating that they were in the fifth section of the mine. The excited rescuers knocked back in response. Wang said: “I heard over 20 knocks, but I didn’t understand. I went back to discuss it with the other miners. We thought that could mean the number of miners underground, so I returned (to the pipe) and responded with 22 knocks.”
The next day, the miners were able to get a note to rescuers saying: “We are heavily exhausted and in urgent need of stomach medicine, painkillers, medical tape, external anti-inflammatory drugs, and three people have high blood pressure.” Then, contact was lost. One of the miners, and a second who had fallen into a coma after sustaining a head wound in the explosion died on Thursday, January 21. Rescuers through a narrow shaft, sent the miners porridge and nutritional liquids. The survivors a few days later, requested a traditional meal of sausages. Rescuers designed a 711-millimeter (28-inch) diameter passage through which they hoped to pull out the miners. They also drilled smaller channels into other sections of the mine but could neither detect breathing nor movement.
In the race against time, the Chinese mobilised 600 people, including five medical experts with 25 ambulances waiting at the scene. Meanwhile, below the earth surface, despite their uncertain situation, some of the trapped miners tried to help rescuers locate their missing colleagues by using laser pointers and loudspeakers, but there was no response.
Drilling through hard granite was quite difficult and slow and there was the additional danger that being waterlogged, the mine could flood. With 70 tonnes of debris standing in the way, rescuers said they needed at least 15 days to reach the men. The miners were quite optimistic and had a ringing message: “Don’t stop trying to reach us.”
Reporting on their mood, Mr. Chen Fei, the Deputy Secretary of Yantai City said: “After we opened up the third shaft, it had a really excitable effect on the people connected. They were very confident and very hopeful that they would soon be able to get out of the mine.” Then the good news came from the lead rescue worker, Mr. Du Bingjian: “On Sunday morning, a huge obstacle blocking the well suddenly fell to the bottom of the shaft, allowing rescue work to take a big step forward.”
That beautiful Sunday morning at 11.13 am, there were cheers as the first miner was pulled out. He had been trapped in a different part of the gold mine apart from the group of 10. About an hour later, the remaining 10 were pulled out. One of the miners, Mr. Du An said: “When we heard the drills for the shaft nearing us, all of us stood up… we were too excited. There are no words to describe this feeling. I feel like I am reborn.” He said they had only water, but no food: “There was plenty of water down there, but it’s not very suitable for drinking. So we would only drink a little bit of it to survive…We comforted one another with encouraging words. That’s how we pulled through.” That afternoon, all the 11 surviving miners were pulled out from what could have been their death chambers. As they were being moved out of the shaft, the rescue workers and officials stood at attention and applauded. Some of the miners clasped their hands in appreciation. They had black blindfold across their eyes to protect them after two weeks in darkness.
Wang Kang in hospital said: “We were trapped nearly 600 metres below ground, it was a daunting task. We are so happy.” He said of the first moments of the explosion: “It blasted us really far away, and our safety helmets cracked. After it was over, we quickly tried to look for other people.” The bodies of the unaccounted nine miners were recovered a day after this dramatic rescue.
The rescue of the 11 miners in China which was possible due to their power of endurance, cooperation, the rescuers and officials dogged fight, availability of technology and some good fortune, reminds me of the quite dramatic October 13, 2010 rescue of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 700 meters (2,300 feet) for 69 days. I am also reminded of the July 2018 movie-like rescue of a dozen Thai boys and their coach after being trapped for two weeks in the flooded Tham Luang Nang cave system near the Thai-Myanmar border. That rescue demanded pumping millions of water gallons out of the cave in the face of dwindling oxygen levels.
These dramatic rescues are a testimony to the human spirit; one that refuses to give up despite the odds. They were also success stories that speak to the heights humanity has attained in technological, medical and communication development.
However, the mine incidents question for how long humans will be put in harm’s way in our quest for coal, gold, diamond and other riches in the bowels of the earth. Can technology end this ancient live entombment of precious lives? Perhaps, but not in the foreseeable future.
-Owei Lakemfa is a journalist, labour and human rights activist