Vaal Reefs tragedy commemorated

10th May 2005 By: Nicola Mawson

Ten years ago 104 miners plunged to their death when an underground locomotive carriage fell from the 1 700-m deep 56 level onto a cage laden with night shift miners.

The tragedy, at Vaal Reefs number two shaft near Orkney, in the Free State, was arguably the worst to befall mining in South Africa and has the dubious distinction of being the Guinness Book of World Records' worst elevator tragedy.

That the locomotive and man carriage could run away down a mineshaft called into question whether safety interlocks had been bypassed.

Then Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs Pik Botha called for a revision of safety practices on mines.

“Until the new measures are in place, I appeal to all the stakeholders in our mining industry to take special care to ensure that this litany of accident, injury and death comes to an end.”

Reports at the time indicated that the cage was impacted to a third of its original size once it reached the bottom of the shaft - at 2,3 kilometres below surface.

Mining company Anglo American Corporation spokesperson James Duncan reported that identifying the victims was complicated by the nature of the mangled mess at the bottom of the shaft.

"The bodies are badly mutilated, it is hot and they are beginning to decompose."

All 104 victims, buried only a month later, were in the two-deck cage, the driver of the locomotive having jumped clear before the train started its downward journey after entering the wrong tunnel.

Apparently, the locomotive went through barriers that were intended to stop much smaller machinery.

Other reports blame braking failures for the locomotive's plunge and subsequent snapping of the cage's steel rope.

A report released the following year after a joint inquiry and inquest found that the Anglo American subsidiary, the Vaal Reefs Exploration and Mining Company, should be prosecuted for culpable homicide.

A number of causes were found to have contributed to the disaster.

These included that the locomotive was parked in a prohibited area and its electrical circuit was bridged out and the locomotive could easily run away.

Safety was called into question by the report, which found that no device was in place to adequately prevent the locomotive and carriage from entering the shaft.

The report also indicated that the mine had failed to act after a similar incident three years earlier, despite the recommendation then that urgent steps be taken.

In the company's 1996 Annual Report then chairperson Bobby Godsell indicated that the company had been charged with culpable homicide, the trial set for March 5 of that year.

Its defence was that the accident was neither foreseen of foreseeable but reports from commissions of inquiry did result in expert research and management action aimed at shaft-station safety devices.

Those deprived of a primary breadwinner through the disaster became a priority for the company and the union.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the company set up a trust fund for the more than 69 widows after the disaster.

Some 152 children were being supported through the fund, co-chaired in 1996 by the late Walter Sisulu and Helen Suzman, in primary school while a further 37 children were being assisted through high school.

But, according to some reports, contract workers were left out in the cold.

Only the families of regular mine employees received the R60 000 compensation each, families of contracted workers had to settle for R5 000 each.

Feedback from the Vaal Reefs Disaster Trust was expected today, at a ceremony attended by Godsell, Suzman, NUM founder Senzeni Zokwana and Department of Minerals and Energy representative May Hermanus.

The ceremony, to be held in Orkney, will be attended by some of the survivors.

Representatives of the children and widows of the deceased miners were to give speeches.

The day is scheduled to end after 14:30 with a wreath-laying ceremony.