Cape Town. 120423. Emergency workers search for illegal miners that were trapped in a De Beers mine 75km outside Springbok on the Klienseer Rd. Photo by Michael Walker

Caryn Dolley

SPRINGBOK: Hopes have faded that any of the 17 illegal miners, trapped under tons of sand in the Bontekou area in the Northern Cape, are alive.

Yesterday, during an intricate rescue operation that has spanned more than 60 hours, rescuers brought in devices which detect vibrations and sounds underground – hoping that they could detect signs that some of the 17 were still alive.

But late yesterday, Sakhile Ngcobo, the executive head of De Beers public affairs, said: “Unfortunately no sounds were heard.”

Rescuers would try and access the underground tunnels that collapsed early on Tuesday, and would then start retrieving bodies.

Earlier yesterday at the busy rescue site, for a few minutes at a time, silence descended.

Between 10.47am and 11.22am, machinery, generators, bulldozers and vehicles were switched off and everyone at the site was asked to be quiet.

Trapped Persons Location Devices were then used in the diggers’ access shaft and on the surface.

In the awful quiet, the only sound was of birds chirping.

Specialist rescuers wearing earphones placed microphones into the ground during the periods of silence.

One miner was rescued late on Tuesday, while two bodies had by yesterday been pulled from the collapsed tunnels.

The mine, dug by the 11 illegal miners who managed to escape, consisted of a short vertical shaft which they had used to enter and exit a bigger cavity called the “waiting room.’

Three tunnels had been dug from the “waiting room”.

Earlier yesterday, police spokesman Paul Peters said specialist rescue teams had been called in from areas including Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Pretoria.

However, yesterday these teams left the rescue site, and only a specialist mine rescue services proto-team remained.

“At the moment there are no open tunnels they can go into. Once a tunnel is opened the team may go in,” Peters said.

Before it was discovered that no miners were alive, the plan was that the proto-team would split into two, with one group entering the tunnel to rescue miners, and the second group remaining on standby on the outside in case their colleagues in the tunnel needed to be rescued.