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Rescue teams have so far retrieved five of the 17 bodies still underground at Kleinzee’s Bontekou mine in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape, and have closed the mine to the public.
Sandslides reportedly trapped the group on Tuesday at 3am.
While 11 members of an initial group of 30 miners emerged from the same scene alive, 19 miners, known as “diggers” are believed to have died in the intense heat while trapped inside the mine.
Two bodies were retrieved on Wednesday.
Northern Cape police spokeswoman Chanelle Ehlers said recovery teams found the miners’ tunnel at 3.30am on Friday. Teams had started recovering bodies from the tunnel, and there was no communication from the trapped miners. It was believed they had died, Ehlers said.
Clothing and food wrappers were found in the tunnel, she added.
The mine was closed at about 4am on Friday, with police officers manning an entrance hut about 1km from the mine, from where they ordered people away.
On Thursday, just before the last rays of the sun turned the clouds pink above the mine, front-end loaders deposited heaps of sand into two large holes where the illegal diamond diggers had entered, crushing all hopes of finding survivors alive.
A handful of victims’ relatives remained after the sun had set – some of them family members of 38-year-old Aubrey Booysen.
Booysen’s father, Daniel, sat on a dune looking down at the mine below. Next to him, Booysen’s cousin Erroll sat behind Booysen’s sister Maurida, at times folding his arms protectively around her as cold of the night started setting in.
They’re from the small coastal town of Hondeklipbaai, about 60km south of Kleinzee, where the disaster occurred.
“I don’t think he can be alive anymore. One doesn’t die in your own way, one dies in God’s way. It was his time to go,” the victim’s father said.
On Wednesday the group of relatives was about 50 strong, but by Thursday it became clear no one would get out alive and the crowd thinned to only about 10. They were outnumbered by about 30 police officers, who came fromUpington, Springbok, Garies and Nababeep.
De Beers site manager Lester van Rooyen and other key search operation personnel walked down to the scene of the accident, where Van Rooyen explained how operations would proceed.
On a strip of solid ground on the opposite side of the dunes from where the media and relatives were watching, staff arrived in a Northern Cape Department of Health forensic pathology van.
They parked near a refreshment tent, where sandwiches and cool drinks were offered. Three temporary toilets stood near a temporary SAPS client service centre, a caravan from the Soebatsfontein police. A Northern Cape ANC van was the only obvious political presence.
Over the past few months, Xhosa- and Afrikaans-speaking diamond diggers from northern west coast communities such as Kleinzee, Kommagas, Hondeklipbaai and as far south as Koekenaap have been spending days and nights removing diamonds from the Bontekou mine, about 100km from the nearest big town, Springbok.
But the accident stopped all that.
Speaking at the accident scene, Port Nolloth cluster police spokesman Warrant Officer Paul Pieters, said: “The diggers often come here since the mine has closed. Security was minimal and everything was scaled down. The grounds were unguarded.
“Every now and again, De Beers came and threw soil on the mine to close it again, but soon enough, the diggers came back and opened up the mine again.”
While more bodies were being retrieved one by one, Booysen, who worked previously in the fishing and legal mining industry, prepared to return to his hut on a farm near Hondeklipbaai.
It’s situated a few kilometres from his missing son’s government-subsidised home in Hondeklipbaai which he shared with his young son before his fateful trip to the mine on Tuesday.
Daniel Booysen said his daughter would probably take over full-time care of his grandson now.
And he’d make it his job to persuade the child that “digging” should never be an option for him.
Looking down at the mine, he said: “It’s terrible to be smothered below rocks and with so much soil on top of them.”