A rescue operation to free two Australian gold miners trapped underground for 13 days suffered further delays today as teams were forced to shore up an escape shaft before trying to cut through the final yard of a rock barrier.
A crust of tough rock separates the rescue team from Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, who have been entombed in a steel cage almost 3,000 feet underground since April 25.
Union official Bill Shorten said rescue workers might have to spend the whole day preparing a vertical shaft to avoid a cave-in when they finally drilled through to the men.
“The best information we have received is that it could take a number of hours to prepare the vertical shaft,” Shorten told reporters gathered outside the Beaconsfield Gold Mine in the southern island state of Tasmania. “This could take all day.”
“It is still precarious. This work is complex and difficult, unique in its challenges. That’s why they have to set it up right.”
Through the night, miners toiled in cramped conditions with handheld pneumatic drills to cut through the rock. Explosive specialists also set small charges to try to break up the barrier, which has substantially slowed the progress of the rescue tunnel.
Mine manager Matthew Gill said miners would drill narrow probes up through the crust and ask the trapped pair to report their precise location to help guide the cutting of the vertical shaft.
“Reports from underground this morning are that Todd and Brant remain in reasonable health and good spirits,” he said, adding that the temperature in the cavity where they have been trapped for 300 hours was a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius.
“Obviously they want to get out as soon as possible … but they have said that they want the work to proceed safely.”
Rescue workers have joked the operation may be further complicated by the size of the men, who have been eating five square meals a day, including omelettes and homemade soup passed through a narrow pipe.
“They are big blokes,” said Michael Lester, a public relations officer for the mine. “They have been joking that if they keep eating as well as they have, the tunnel will have to be greased to get them out.”
The men, both married fathers of three children, have been trapped since an earthquake caused a rock fall 13 days ago. Protected by the steel safety cage they were working in, Webb and Russell suffered little more than scratches in the rock fall.
The pair 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 a day later began passing them food and water through a pipe forced through a hole drilled into the rock.
Over the past week, rescuers have bored through more than 45 feet of rock using a giant drilling machine in an effort to reach the men.
But cutting the final stage of the escape tunnel has been slow and difficult. Only one miner at a time can work in the cramped tunnel, and must wield a 88lb drill above his head to cut vertically.
The mood was sombre, but determined at the mine. Officials had hoped the men would be freed in the early hours of Saturday morning, prompting hundreds of residents to gather at the mine’s gates eager to catch a glimpse of the men whose ordeal has turned them into national heroes. But celebrations turned to frustration because of the slow progress.
Miner Larry Knight, 44, who was working in the same tunnel as Webb and Russell, was killed in the April 25 rockfall. His body was recovered two days later and his funeral will be held in the nearby town of Launceston tomorrow.