Rescuers make slow progress drilling escape tunnel


BEACONSFIELD, Australia (AP) – Trapped in a tiny steel cage nearly 3,000 feet underground for 10 days, two Australian gold miners still haven’t lost their sense of humor.

“They call where they are a two-star hotel – they’re the two stars,” said Matthew Gill, manager of the century-old Beaconsfield Gold Mine in Tasmania state.

Rescuers drilling a narrow, 52-foot-long escape tunnel toward Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, passed the halfway stage Friday and were within 16 feet by Saturday morning. The miners were waiting for colleagues to come close enough to use hand tools to delicately chip away the last few inches of rock.

“They just said, “Do it safely,”‘ Gill added. “They weren’t concerned at the time (taken) at all.”

Since they were trapped by an April 25 earthquake, Webb and Russell have turned into the stars of an unlikely reality television experience. News anchors camped in the mine’s parking lot beam scraps of information about the effort around Australia, despite not being able to talk to the men or enter the mine where rescuers are working.

It’s widely reported what Webb and Russell are eating, how they are sleeping, even what music they’re listening to – country western – on the iPods rescuers pushed through a narrow tube that connects them to the outside world.

Drilling teams have been working around the clock, cutting through solid rock at a rate of 18 inches an hour.

Gill has declined to speculate how long it would take to reach the men, saying the final stage of the rescue operation, when miners cut through the last crust of rock using jackhammers and small tools, would take time.

“They realize that everything possible is being done,” Gill said. “They are going through a hell of an ordeal but they are strong.”

Other officials said Saturday that they hope the men have spent their final night underground.

On Thursday night, the men had their first home-cooked meal since their ordeal began.

“Last night, they had soup made by their families,” Gill added. “I believe Todd had chicken and vegetable, and Brant had pumpkin.”

Seventeen men were working the night shift on April 25 when a 2.1 magnitude earthquake struck the mine. Fourteen men made it safely to the surface, but Webb, Russell and their colleague Larry Knight, 44, did not.

The three men were reinforcing the walls and roof of a tunnel when the quake hit, burying them.

Knight’s body was found two days later as rescuers cleared away the rubble. Webb and Russell, who were working inside a steel safety cage at the end of a hydraulic arm, were trapped under tons of rock.

For five days, they survived on a single cereal bar and by licking water seeping through the rocks around them, huddled inside the cramped 4-by-4-foot cage in 86 degree heat.

Rescuers, who had blasted through 80 feet of rock from a neighboring tunnel, discovered they were alive Sunday when a thermal imaging camera picked up traces of their body heat.

By Monday, the team had forced a pipe through crevices in the rock through which they pushed supplies including water, vitamins and fresh clothing.

Comforts like iPods, an inflatable mattress, egg and chicken sandwiches and even flavored ice followed.

The good humor of the two men, both married with three children, has amazed rescuers. One of the men asked for a newspaper to be pushed through the pipe so he could start scanning the classified ads for another job, Gill said. Another wanted to be out by Saturday so he could play for his local soccer team.

With attention focused on the rescue, the issue of mine safety has not yet come to the fore.

Compared with other countries, Australia has a strong mine safety record. 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.