Ten thousand miners downed tools on Tuesday to honour the five employees who died in a Gold Fields shaft on 30 June. An investigation into the cause of the deaths is ongoing, but an employee who survived the disaster by the skin of his teeth says he already knows what he needs to: the risks aren’t worth the pay. By GREG NICOLSON.
After the memorial service at the Carletonville mine, Zomwabewe Ntsime laughs at a question I ask. The 52-year-old was recently released from hospital and is in the red colours of the National Union of Mineworkers. He’s been with Gold Fields since 1983, serving almost 30 years as a rigger before becoming a safety officer in October 2011.
“When you were down there on 30 June, were you scared you were going to die?” I ask. He laughs along with his union representative Khululekile Alfred.
“When we are going underground we are not scared of anything because we know it’s a place whereby we are working. We are not scared of anything,” explains Alfred.
But on the evening of 30 June, five miners died in a Driefontein shaft after a fire started on the line. As safety officer, Ntsime was one of the first on the scene.
He received a phone call from almost three kilometers underground telling him there was a problem at level 39, where workers had been doing overtime mudloading. The fumes were affecting those inside the mine, he was told. “When I asked him what was happening he told me that the people are falling there, they’re dying inside,” he explains.
He phoned the control room and was told to check it out.
Passing the boiler shop, Ntsime picked up a lamp that could read fume levels. It indicated there were dangerous gases inside. “What I did, I opened the pipes, the compressed air pipes. I opened this pipe. There was no air. I also opened another valve of water. I saw that there is no water there. I went inside.”
When he reached level 39, he realised the problem was below. Again he tried to open the air compressor and water valves so that miners inside would have ventilation. He left the valves open and, on instructions from the control room, went down to the affected area.
He descended the steps and eventually saw workers waiting for him. They were just outside the path to the mining area, where he’d heard others were dying. He phoned again to the control room. It was hot and he requested that they ensure the water and air remained on.
He put on his rescue pack so he could breathe, and went to those in danger.
A man was lying in the mud, near where the excavated earth was deposited. “He breathed this mud. I tried to turn him in order to help him not to breathe the mud. But I saw this guy had passed. When I saw him, the way he breathed, I saw he’d passed. But I tried to help him.
“But what happened was this thing started to [affect] me now. I went back to the working area where the guys were staying to get that air… I tried to talk to them and say, ‘Let us go and get the guy who [it] seems is going to pass and [see] if we can help him. Maybe he’s going to survive.’ They refused. I went inside again.”
Life drained from Ntsime almost immediately. He turned back to the miners who were breathing safely. They helped him exit but he was left alone before he had the strength to get to full safety.
“I was trying to move to get to the water because there is a pipe working in the way where there is another escape route. I was trying to go there by moving,” he says, acting out an army crawl. “In the legs there was no power and the arms there was no power.”
He finally made it to an area where the water and air had reached. “I started to get power when I got water in my body. That was where the problem was. [I stayed there] until I got the power to go up. That is when I was getting alive.”
Ntsime was one of the 14 Gold Field workers taken to hospital. As one of thousands of employees who packed into a hall on Tuesday for the memorial service for the five who died, he was reminded he was one of the lucky ones.
Photo: Families of the miners who died at Gold Fields stand at the memorial ceremony for their loved ones. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
The company expressed its condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and offered gifts in Gold Fields wrapping paper. After two years and nine months, it was the company’s first fatality, and it immediately closed the affected shafts until they could be declared safe.
Gold Fields would not comment on the causes of the deaths until a joint investigation with the department of mineral resources could be completed. Its spokesman would only confirm that the trouble started with a fire in the mine.
But this has not been enough to quell murmurs that the company should be held accountable. “Even the people that are dead now, they shouldn’t be,” says Ntsime, echoing the words of NUM general secretary Frans Baleni, who said after the incident, “We strongly condemn the company when sending workers on overtime shift when there is no ventilation.”
When asked why his coworkers didn’t ensure the mine was ventilated, Ntsime says, “They didn’t forget… I blame the company, myself. If they had opened the valve and everything, these guys wouldn’t be dead.”
“They closed the compressed air to reduce the cost,” adds Alfred, standing in the sun at Gold Fields. Safety regulations are in place, but according to hearsay, he says, there was a major communication breakdown in the central control room. Operators, he says, knew carbon monoxide levels were up to six times the allowed maximum, but failed to inform the miners.
Ntsime shakes his head and says the danger isn’t worth the pay. “But what can I do?” he asks, “It’s a way of life.” His family wants him to move home, to Alice in the Eastern Cape, but he plans to stay on.
When the fear did finally sink in on 30 June, when he was almost three kilometers underground and death was close, he thought of them.
“I was thinking that I had already died,” he says. “Because I had no power – the legs, arms, everything. Even breath, I breathed very difficultly.
“I was thinking about my family.” DM
Main photo: Gold Fields employee Zomwabewe Ntsime, right, with Khululekile Alfred. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)