16/11/2010 Patrice Motsepe Executive Chairman of ARM during his announcement of the fourth dividend payment and ditribution of funds to the beneficiaries of their BEE Trust held at Sandton JHB. (343) Photo: Leon Nicholas

Johannesburg - Patrice Motsepe, the South African billionaire chairman of Harmony Gold Mining, asked for forgiveness from the families of nine miners killed in an underground fire at the company last week.

“We ask for your forgiveness,” Motsepe said as he addressed the miners’ families at a memorial service in Johannesburg today.

“They lost their lives while in our care.”

Nine workers died at Harmony’s Doornkop mine west of Johannesburg after a rockfall on February 4 started a fire more than a mile underground.

It’s the most deaths in a single event in the company’s history.

Two more miners died later in separate incidents at other Harmony sites, prompting the company to shut all operations for a day of safety checks.

Many questions need to be answered about last week’s deadly fire, Motsepe said.

These included why, if the accident was discovered at 6 pm, it took until 11 pm for a rescue team to reach the scene, he said.

“If there were any failures on our part, if there were any pitfalls we should have foreseen, we are committed to rectify” these across all Harmony’s mines, he said.

Search and rescue and deep-level firefighting teams were sent to Doornkop after the blaze broke out 1,733 meters (5,700 feet) below the surface.

About 130 workers were underground at the time, with 35 in the immediate vicinity of the fire.

Eighteen of those able to escape immediately, chief executive Graham Briggs said February 6.

Eight miners were found in an underground refuge chamber and brought out unharmed.

‘Redouble Efforts’

“We need to redouble our safety efforts,” Briggs said at the service.

“Today is not a day for finger pointing.”

Harmony will work closely with the government, unions and employees in understanding what went wrong and prevent it from happening again, he said.

The body of the last missing miner was found on February 7.

Taking two days to find the ninth miner’s body was “unacceptable,” Mines Minister Susan Shabangu said at the memorial service.

“Safety has to be better,” she said.

The gold-mining industry must “invest in new technologies that can save the lives of workers.”

Motsepe, 52, is the richest black South African, with a net worth of $2.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

In January 2013, he pledged some of his wealth to charity, joining the Giving Pledge that Warren Buffett formed with Bill and Melinda Gates. - Bloomberg News