Miners await freedom


BEACONSFIELD, Australia (AP) – Two Australian gold miners spent a twelfth night trapped underground as rescuers struggling to cut the final stretch of an escape tunnel by hand today considered using explosives.

Officials had hoped to free Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, before dawn but said progress chipping through the solid rock by jackhammer was slower than expected.

Residents of the close-knit community had gathered Saturday at the gates of Beaconsfield Gold Mine to cheer the men, hanging a banner that read “Long live the legends.” But heavy wind and rain caused the carnival atmosphere to fade and most people returned home.

Bill Shorten, a union official, said it would still be “many hours” before the miners could be brought to the surface.

Workers were toiling on their backs in a cramped tunnel almost a half-mile underground trying to smash through the final five feet of solid rock using hand tools. Shorten said using jackhammers was like “throwing Kleenex at rock” and mine authorities were considering using low-impact explosives.

“This is going to be a case of muscle versus rock,” Shorten told Nine Network television on Saturday.

Doctors on standby warned the miners may have suffered psychological trauma.

Stephen Ayre, chief executive of nearby Launceston Hospital, said the pair would be assessed for a range of medical problems, including blood clots and kidney failure.

“I think probably one of the first things would be the psychological trauma or the shock of suddenly being inundated and being the focus of attention,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The men, who have spent more than 260 hours in a tiny steel cage entombed by tons of rocks and rubble, will be treated in the same room so they can continue to support each other, officials said.

Webb and Russell have been trapped underground since April 25, when a 2.1 magnitude earthquake sent tremors through the century-old mine in the southern state of Tasmania and pinned the tiny cage they were working in under tons of rock.

Suffering little more than scratches, they survived for five days on a single cereal bar and by licking water seeping through the rocks around them. Rescuers discovered they were alive last Sunday, when a thermal imaging camera picked up their body heat, and on Monday began passing them food and water through a narrow pipe forced through the rubble and rock.

Creature comforts such as iPods, an inflatable mattress, egg and chicken sandwiches and even ice lollipops followed, and the men are now eating five meals a day, including hot soup and omelets.

Despite their ordeal, officials said Webb and Russell have remained upbeat – buoyed by the prospect of fast food, a beer with a rock star and reunion with their wives and children.

They chatted and joked Saturday with rescue workers through the narrow pipe and even requested that ambulance drivers stop at a fast food restaurant on the way to hospital, once they are brought to the surface.

On hearing that Webb had asked for music by the rock group Foo Fighters to be downloaded onto his iPod, the band’s lead singer, Dave Grohl, sent a message of support to the men.

“I read it to them and they were both stoked by that,” said mine manager Matthew Gill. “It was basically, ‘Thinking of you and anywhere, anytime to catch up with two cold beers.”‘

The rockfall that trapped the men killed their colleague, Larry Knight, 44. His body was recovered two days later, but the family has delayed the funeral until the rescue mission is over.

Australia has a strong mine safety record compared with many other countries. After the deaths of 16 West Virginia coal miners earlier this year, U.S. labor leaders and experts held up Australia as a possible role model.

According to the Minerals Council of Australia, a trade association that represents 85 percent of Australian mining companies, fatalities are on a downward trend. Nineteen miners were killed in 1999-2000, and 10 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2005. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, and the country is dotted with mines extracting everything from uranium to diamonds.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 152 fatalities in mining and oil and natural gas extraction in 2004. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reported 25 deaths in coal mine accidents that year.