IN PICTURES | ‘This mine shaft is full of boys. They are so young’: Miracles and fears in Kadoma mine rescue

Families celebrate after news some miners trapped in a mine shaft in Kadoma had been found live, 2019 (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

After four days trapped underground in flooded shafts, eight miners have been pulled out alive at Cricket Mine at Battlefields, near Kadoma. It is feared that dozens more are still trapped below.

The ongoing effort includes mine rescue teams from Zimplats, RioZim, AfroChine, police, government and dozens of fellow miners, who have bravely descended via makeshift hoists into the dark tunnels below to find more survivors. Those who made it out reported seeing bodies in the water.

A miner stands near a flooded shaft as retrieval efforts proceed for trapped illegal gold miners in Kadoma (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)

The disaster started on Tuesday night, when a blocked waterway near the informal mines burst after heavy rain, sending water rushing into the shafts, where fellow miners say at up to 70 people may have been working.

An artisanal miner looks at a pit as retrieval efforts proceed for trapped illegal gold miners in Kadoma (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)

Rescue efforts were slowed by heavy rain, which affected access to the site, which lies some 8KM off the main dirt road leading from the highway. Cricket Mine, where the bulk of miners are trapped, is on claims owned by RioZim.

Fellow artisinal miners look down a pit during a mine search and rescue operation at Cricket Mine  (Jekesai Njikizana)

The area is littered with numerous uncovered shafts, making it more dangerous for rescuers unfamiliar with the area. Shacks used by the miners line the verges of the gold fields.

Officials direct operations at site of mine collapse (Tsvangirai Mukwazhi/AP)

Survivors escaped the water by finding higher ground inside the shafts as columns of water rushed in to the mines.

“We are yet to assess and find out if there are any more people down there who are still alive,” said the government’s deputy chief mining engineer, Tapererwa Paswavaviri, speaking at the site. “But indications are that some of the guys succumbed to gassing, that was the major cause of fatalities.”

People watch as an earthmover from RioZim, which owns the claims where disaster struck, clears the area (AP)

The Centre for Natural Resource Governance, a mining watchdog, blames the Environmental Management Authority for failing to protect lives by properly decommissioning disused mines. The group said the mine should have been sealed to avoid tragedies of this nature.

People gather over a collapsed shaft as retrieval efforts proceed for trapped illegal gold miners in Kadoma (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)

Lovejoy Mbedzi said her brother Evan Chibuwe, 29, has been missing since Wednesday. “I am very sad. This mine shaft is full of boys between the ages of 18 and 30. They are so young and don’t deserve to die in this manner,” she said.

Families wait for news on their relatives trapped in the mines (Tsvangirai Mukwazhi/AP)

Trapped miners have no funeral cover and relatives are pleading for government assistance. “I don’t have a funeral policy, burying my child will be very difficult,” said Idah Gwangwari, 60, who lost her son Donald, 20.

Two men watch rescue operations, hoping. (AP)

Mines Deputy Minister Polite Kambamura said early signs are that the miners had illegally closed off a waterway to give themselves access to the abandoned shafts.

 “They tried to block the water channel 300 metres away from where the shafts are, but there was a flood leading to their submersion.”

A miner gets ready to descend into a mining pit during a mine search and rescue operation at Cricket Mine (Jekesai Njikizana)

Government’s feeble response to the crisis has drawn public fury. The Civil Protection Unit reacted late, and those on the ground appeared poorly equipped.

Only the arrival of a unit from Zimplats sped up the dewatering of the mines. Rescue efforts were led by the informal miners themselves, who are more familiar with the maze of tunnels, and are less cautious than the formal rescuers are to risk entering the increasingly unstable shafts. The informal miners placed themselves in more danger to save their colleagues.

A mine rescue team arrives with piping to dewater the shafts (AP)

First, the rescue teams dewatered the shafts. By Thursday morning, some eight metres of the shaft had been drained. The teams then connected a slurry pump, which draws out mud. This allowed the very first team of rescuers to finally get access into the shafts and seek out survivors.

Mine rescue team fixes equipment overnight (AP)

Early on Saturday morning, the first breakthrough came; one of the miners, Thankmore Mandimutsa, wedged in a ledge on the sides of one of the shafts, responded to calls from the rescuers.

This immediately raised hopes that more survivors could be found.

One of the first miners to be rescued. (Philimon Bulawayo)

Above, officials had given up on anything other than a retrieval of bodies. The first rescue forced them to marshal more resources.

One of the first rescues (Jekesai Njikizana)

Over the few hours that followed, more miners were found. One by one, they were brought to the surface, lightening up the grim faces of the hundreds of desperate relatives waiting above.

Joy as more miners are brought to the surface (AP)

Among those rescued on Saturday morning were two young men, Thankmore Mandimutsa and Simon Mushonga, who survived by escaping onto higher ground when the flooding began.

Thankmore Mandimutsa and Simon Mushonga sit inside a tent after being rescued on Saturday (Jekesai Njikizana)

Will they ever go back below again after this tragedy? After surviving four days without food or water, in pitch darkness, and neck-deep in water, will these young people return to this dangerous line of work? More than 1.5 million people survive on artisanal mining, according to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation. For many, like Thankmore Mandimutsa, below, this is the only job they can get.

[Click here to read our report on the rising body count in Zimbabwe’s illegal mines]