Everything seemed so routine the last night that I worked underground. Only one thing differed from the usual – my resolve to drill and blast three ends instead of the usual two: I wanted my varsity vacation job to end on a high note.
My team of workers had not been highly motivated before – they knew I was there only temporarily and did not feel the need to impress me. But somehow, that night everything went smoothly; and shortly before the end of the shift we had drilled and charged up one horizontal development end, and two short vertical raises on the level below.
I thanked my team and told them they could knock off – I would “cheesa” all the fuses myself.
I lit the first raise, then hurried to the next one. It was important to finish lighting up this one before the first one began to go off as they both led off the same tunnel, and I could be affected by the dust and fumes in the relatively confined space.
I finished the second raise in time – no sound of explosions. Everything was going well.
I then ran about 100 metres to a set of steps and climbed up to the next level. I walked along the final tunnel to be lit up, with the spluttering cheesa stick in my hand.
About halfway along this tunnel I heard loud explosions going off very close by. I hesitated – one of the raises I had just lit up could be due to hole through into the tunnel I was in, and no one had told me! If this was the case my superior had failed to observe one of the most important mining safety rules: the miner had to be warned in writing when a hole-through was expected.
I was torn between my desire to flee and the desire to finish the job. The face I had battled to drill and charge up was only 30 metres away.
Suddenly, I decided that if the raise was going to hole it would have done so with the first explosion. (This is the “cut” and consists of six holes drilled in a tight circle and timed to go off simultaneously.)
I ran to the face, saying to myself that if something went wrong I could always return and cut the fuses before they burnt into the holes. I lit up the seventeen fuses and hurried back.
To my horror I found the tunnel completely blocked with broken rock. As I stood there another loud explosion filled the tunnel with acrid fumes.
I clawed at the broken rock; but it was no use. I couldn’t move enough of it to make a space to crawl through. It was now too late to run back to cut the fuses. In less than a minute I would be ripped to shreds by the equivalent of seventeen powerful hand grenades.
I sat down and clearly remember saying, “God, I’m not going to die now.”
Just then I felt a massive explosion beneath me lift me up. Then I fell through a hole that it had blasted, together with tons of rock. I seemed to fall in slow motion and as I fell an explosion went off right next to me. Flying rocks cut through my boots and into my feet. I fell onto a pile of broken rock and rolled down to safety.
The next day in hospital where the wounds in my hand, elbow and feet had been stitched up, I was visited by the inspector of mines. In the background was mine captain DT who had met me as I was being carried out of the mine on a stretcher, and tried to convince me that he had told me that the raise was due to hole into the tunnel I was drilling above it.
The inspector asked me how I was feeling, and asked me to tell him what had happened the previous night. When I’d finished he said, “That’s fine; but in future remember it’s safer to have someone with you when lighting up.” I assured him that was my last shift working underground.
“Just one more thing: mine captain DT says that he warned you that the raise was due to hole into the tunnel.” I had to inform him that nobody had warned me of this possibility.
It was the same mine captain DT who, a few years before, had instructed me to drill and blast the tunnel in De Beers Mine that caused devastation in the shaft. I almost felt sorry for him: once again he would have to endure a painful inquisition. But felt that any trouble he got into was richly deserved.