CLOUDS of dust rise from sun-baked sand as a bulldozer scoops up mounds of it. Emergency workers, circling the machine, peer anxiously for signs of a tunnel.
Somewhere underneath the tons of sand being excavated, at least 18 people – all illegal miners – are trapped.
It is feared among them is a 16-year-old boy who accompanied his father to the Bontekoe mine to dig for diamonds.
The miners got trapped in the mine, outside Kleinzee, in the Northern Cape, two days ago. About 11 others managed to dig their way out of a collapsed tunnel and told police what had happened.
De Beers stopped mining in the remote area four years ago. The mine area is now being rehabilitated.
At 2am yesterday, the first body was retrieved from the mine. Two bodies had been spotted on Tuesday, but because of the instability of the sand, rescuers could not pull them out.
It is not known how many of the men are dead or alive.
Yesterday was the second day of an extensive and intricate rescue operation to try to save those trapped. Bulldozers and other earth-moving vehicles were used. The rescue operation has been going for more than 36 hours.
A highly specialised team from De Beers was also called in to try to determine the best way to attempt to find and free the miners.
The area where the miners were trapped was cordoned off as it was considered a crime scene.
Throughout the day, a bulldozer moved mounds of sand from near the area where it was thought that the miners were trapped.
Residents of surrounding areas gathered on the dunes nearby. They discussed the 16-year-old boy they knew only as “Cardo”, who they feared was trapped with his father.
“These men came here to work and now look what’s happened. This was their job. They came from all over. Port Elizabeth, Port Nolloth, Hondeklipbaai and even Cape Town,” a Kleinzee resident, who declined to be named, said.
“This is illegal, but it’s good work. It puts the bread and butter on the table.”
Residents said illegal mining was a lucrative way to earn money
“It’s a highly organised business. They get the diamonds and sell them on the black market. What you find is what you get,” he said. They said illegal miners worked in shifts as if it were a “real job”.
Residents said the illegal miners had started mining by digging a cavity under sandstone.
From a main cavity, which some described as a room in which 20 miners could eat and sleep, about three or four tunnels were then dug. The miners had used petrol-powered jackhammers and it was believed the use of the jackhammers had caused the sandstone to crack and the cavity, about 6m deep, to collapse.
The residents, frustrated at watching the protracted rescue operation, pleaded to be allowed to join in and help at one stage yesterday.
Andy Pienaar said he was familiar with how the tunnels were dug and could show rescuers which points they should focus on. “I can tell you how many people are down there. I leave that mine every night,” he said. Pienaar was then led down to the rescue site where he could be seen pointing out different areas.
Police captain Cherelle Ehlers said it had been decided that a ditch would be dug alongside the tunnel from which rescue workers would try to reach the trapped diggers.