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Durban - An eight-ton platform on wheels broke loose from its bearings four kilometres into a hydro-electric tunnel near Ladysmith and killed six construction workers in a freak accident on Thursday.
Seven more were injured, three o f them critically.
The accident happened at 9.15am in one of four of Eskom’s Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme tunnels which link the Braamhoek Dam to the Bedford Dam in the new power generation project.
The platform, on which 13 men were welding and grouting the tunnel’s sides, was set on a steep incline when it broke loose and rolled.
Eskom spokesman Andrew Etzinger said the dead were employed by a contractor and were not Eskom employees.
He said psychologists had been sent to counsel the 3 387 workers who had been on the site when the accident happened.
“Eskom decided to shut down the site. The workers are all shocked and traumatised.
“We take safety very seriously and this construction was not rushed. When things like this happen it is a tragedy.”
Rescuers worked until late on Thursday to recover the bodies.
The power station is one of the government’s infrastructure projects and one of three new facilities being constructed to boost the country’s energy supply.
Emergency worker Marinus Nabal, who spoke to The Mercury during the rescue, said the operation was “a major task”.
Nabal, from IPSS Medical Response, said paramedics raced 4km down the tunnel to the trapped men.
“Four bodies were at the bottom section of the rubble and one underneath all the rubble,” he said.
Mlungisi Shongwe, a spokesman for the Ingula project, said there was “a lot of construction” happening underground where the accident happened.
The excavation and tunnelling involved a work force of about 900 working different shifts in a 24-hour cycle.
In a separate incident earlier this year, one person died after he was crushed by an excavating machine, Shongwe said.
Provincial labour department spokesman Nhlanhla Khumalo said inspectors were on site and investigations under way on Thursday.
The R28-billion Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme consists of the upper and lower dam, each capable of holding about 22 million cubic metres of water. The project started in 2005 and is scheduled to be finished next year.
The dams are 4.6km apart and will be connected by the underground waterways passing through a powerhouse with four generators.
To generate electricity during peak demand water will be released from the top dam and pass through the turbines into the bottom dam.
During times of low energy demand, the turbines will be used to pump the water back again.
President Jacob Zuma sent his condolences to the families of the dead.
“We mourn with the families of all the workers who have lost their lives in this tragedy, while constructing a better life not just for themselves and their families, but also for the entire country. We share their loss and their pain,” he said.
Etzinger said the site would remain closed until investigations had been complete.
Eskom chief executive Brian Dames was expected to visit the site on Thursday night and would hold a press conference on Friday.
Premier Senzo Mchunu also expressed his shock at the accident.
“Although the circumstance surrounding the accident, which resulted in their demise, is yet to be established, we commend Eskom for moving swiftly to assure the people of this province and the country that an investigation will be instituted,” Mchunu said.
Cosatu said it was “bitter” and “pained” at the deaths. “We extend our sincere condolences to the bereaved families at this dark hour.”