WELKOM, South Africa -- Rescue workers searching a devastated gold mine for up to 42 miners feared trapped in an elevator cage spotted a body today at the bottom of the 4,500-foot shaft, officials said.
The missing miners were last seen before a suspected explosion early Monday sent the two-deck elevator cage plummeting down the No. 10 shaft at General Mining Corp.'s St. Helena gold mine. On Monday the bodies of eight miners who died in the disaster were found.
Rescuers hoping the cage was jammed midway in the vertical shaft failed to locate it after all-night efforts with a special television camera, spokesman Gary Maude told reporters at the mine today.
'We are concentrating on where is the best chance of someone being alive, and we should know by the end of the day if they are there,' Maude said.
The television-aided probe continued today. 'Either we will find the missing cage in the shaft or we will know it is at the bottom' - under 120 feet of concrete and steel rubble torn from the shaft walls, he said.
Maude said recuers who reached a cross-tunnel 300 feet from the shaft bottom reported seeing a body atop the rubble.
A solitary rescuer hanging from a 100-foot rope in the darkness of the devasted shaft rescued five badly burned miners Monday night from a pump station 2,300 feel below ground. The rescuer also found the bodies of the eight known dead.
Mine captain Nico Venter told reporters today almost matter of factly about the rescue operation. Swinging on a 'bosun's chair' at the end of a rope connected to a service elevator, Venter reached the survivors and transferred them singly into the chair to be hoisted aloft.
'The chair was spinning madly in the velocity of the wind in there,' he said. 'But I was in radio contact with the lift above me so I could control the movement up and down with the men we found.'
Maude, director of the Gencor mine, said there was little chance that any of the 42 miners listed as missing were still alive.
Monday's disaster occurred as a high-speed elevator was taking miners to work in the No. 10 shaft at the Gencor mine, 160 miles southwest of Johannesburg, for the first full morning shift since the nation's costliest strike ended after 21 days, mine officials said.
Maude said Monday 25 specially trained rescuers found the frayed end of a steel cable that had been connected to the elevator cage in which the missing men -- 37 blacks and five whites -- were being lowered into the shaft.
Harry Hill, a Gencor spokesman, said early Monday it appeared that the accident had been caused by a massive explosion in or near the pump room, which pushes tons of water out of the mine to the surface.
Maude said today it was becoming increasingly apparent an explosion caused the mishap.
'The reason for now believing it was an explosion is just that the injuries (on those found alive) were burns,' Maude said. 'We still do not know what caused the explosion.'
Earlier, he said a blast could be caused by explosives or methane gas. Methane, a highly explosive but odorless and colorless gas, is often found in coal mines, but seldom in the deeper shafts of gold excavations.
Maude said sabotage seemed unlikely but could not be ruled out.
'We feel fairly sure that most if not all (of the 42 missing men) were in the cage,' Maude said. 'Either we will find the missing conveyance or it is at the bottom.'
On the possibility of finding some of the men alive, Ward said, 'It's slim, but it's still a possibility.'
Gencor first reported 70 men missing, then 82 and 92, but Maude said some of those initially unaccounted for were found in the mine and were led to safety through an adjoining shaft.
Others were found on the surface among the mine's 7,000 staff, leaving 42 men unaccounted for and feared dead as of late Monday.
The risk of a further collapse of the shaft sides made it impossible for rescuers to begin digging immediately and Maude said it could be days before the elevator cage was uncovered.
The accident happened as the first full morning shift moved underground after a crippling 21-day strike by 330,000 supporters of the black National Union of Mineworkers.
Other mining companies said large numbers of men returned to work Monday and more were expected to be back on the job today.
The miners, who had been pressing for a 30 percent wage hike, settled Sunday for increased vacation pay and a 50 percent improvement in death benefits.
In terms of the new agreement, the families of miners killed Monday will be paid the equivalent of three years wages, a total of about $10,000, in compensation.
The strike, described by NUM leader Cyril Ramaphosa as 'a dress rehearsal' for further action next year, was the biggest, longest and costliest in South African mining history.
He said miners decided to settle in the face of the mass firing of 46,000 men and threats to the jobs of another 100,000.
Monday's mining accident could be the worst in South Africa since September 1986, when 177 men died in an underground fire in Gencor's Kinross gold mine east of Johannesburg. Several Kinross officials still face trial on charges of negligence.
NUM deputy leader Marcel Golding said the accident was the third major incident at a Gencor mine in less than a year.
'It is becoming patently clear that Gencor's safety practices are atrocious,' Golding said in Johannesburg. 'This accident confirms the NUM's belief that South Africa's mines are the least safe, the most dangerous, in the world.'