Free State police said it was believed a methane gas explosion took place inside the Eland shaft of an old and disused Harmony Gold mine.
“We were not aware that people had died underground. We were informed by illegal miners about what had happened,” said Welkom police spokesperson Major-General Lerato Molale.
“The retrievals started on Monday and initially 11 bodies were recovered. On Tuesday, 13 more were found and today one more body was recovered."
“Some of the bodies had name tags on their clothing but the management of the mine said they didn’t work there.”
Molale said that at this stage, it was uncertain how many more people were still trapped inside.
“There could be more and we are expecting the number to rise."
“We arrested 11 miners today who managed to survive the blast and got themselves out – they told us there were more corpses trapped underground,” Molale said.
He said the process of identifying the bodies would be difficult because of the state of some of them.
“Some of the bodies were torn apart or were in pieces, which makes it harder for us to identify them."
“We need to identify them properly so that we can return them to their families for burial,” Molale said.
He added that the zama zamas (illegal miners) were not South African nationals.
“They’re from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho."
“The search is continuing and we will keep updating the public as more information becomes available.”
The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) said on Wednesday that it was horrified about what had happened and had sent its condolences to the families of the deceased.
“Saftu is also angry at the minimal publicity which this massive tragedy has been given."
“In few other countries in the world would a human disaster of such magnitude be treated so lightly."
“It shows how unimportant and cheap workers’ lives are regarded by the rich and powerful,” it said in a statement.
“The growing number of zama zamas working in mines is an extreme example of the way in which formal employment is giving way to unorganised, marginalised and desperate workers trying to survive by any means possible."
“They risk their lives every time they go underground, and as well as getting no protection from health and safety laws, they face arrest if caught by the mine owners or police.”
Saftu also demanded that these “super-exploited workers be legalised, trained and given the opportunity to work, with the same rights and conditions as all workers are entitled to”.
“Saftu demands that the police and Department of Mineral Resources urgently and thoroughly investigate the disaster and that everything possible is done to prevent any further such tragedies,” it concluded.