An act of God or human agency?

iol news pic SI_si lily nu0 INDEPENDENT MEDIA Residents pray at Lily mine for the three workers trapped in a container under tons of rock since February 5. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

The search for missing Lily miners has reached a bedrock that demands a miracle and facts, writes Madala Thepa.

The real world is waiting for Barberton to recover from its disaster or cut its losses and move on. It is 52 days today since miners became trapped in a sinkhole and it seems their families’ prayers and wishes have gone unheeded.

Today is Easter Sunday - the eve of a day associated with a biblical miracle.

Perhaps it is time to channel something deeper than faith - something of biblical stature, a miracle of specific intent. The instinct is to scream in bursts of intense focus and ask why.

Optimism is a word that mine chief executive Mike McChesney has held on to. It is the word the families have guarded in their hearts.

McChesney has been quoted as saying: “I want to caution that we have been optimistic before and it was not false optimism.”

The mine disaster remains a painful, true story that needs this optimism.

It is a story that is deeply upsetting to the families who have been staying on the mine’s property, observing a silent vigil, rooted in the cause of hope and optimism, embracing the totality of the pain since the news broke.

Their loved ones are trapped in a container, used as a lamp room, about 80m underground without water and ventilation.

The result can only be disastrous and unthinkable. It is entombment to be trapped beneath 20 000 tons of soil without air, without water.

The mine disaster is equally upsetting and frustrating to the rescuers who have put in many hours of hard work while trying to rescue Pretty Mabuza, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyerende - rescuers who have yet to be accorded international media coverage. Yes, they have had a smattering of attention in the peanut gallery of social media, but only in passing.

It’s a slow news day every day for the families when there is no change in the situation.

It has been the regional media in Mpumalanga that’s been holding the torch in a month-long series of memorial articles.

The disaster has also become a political gig, with politicians stopping by to wear a sad face, say something a little indistinct, and pose for a photograph. Then they run off to the next shallow photo op in another town. But absence of attention has been more painful than media attention.

The Lily mine disaster can easily be chalked up as a not uncommon occurrence in mining. It is insignificant because it is not like a terrorism emergency.

The attitude is that it is only three people trapped underground. But three can be a powerful symbol in the biblical canon. It recalls the three patriarchs before the flood, the three righteous fathers after the deluge, and three being the power of resurrection.

What more can the three workers do to galvanise a biblical miracle of an Abel, Enoch and Noah, or Jesus? Why are the gods so silent?

The stares are vacant every time the rescue workers emerge from that treacherous sinkhole. Their set expressions - dark, brooding and lonely - and body language communicate in a gut feeling.

The jargon used in answering reporters’ questions has gone, replaced by layman’s terms.

When the rescue workers emerge from that sinkhole they are wearing ashes. The symbolism is stark. Ash represents death.

It may not seem a decent proposition right now, but perhaps it is time for the mine to tell the families to light candles and lay wreaths.

This disaster has been like a millstone around their necks - like moments in a reposing room, a nightmare it seems impossible to end.

Three times the ground gave way, and mechanical problems occurred, compelling the mine to suspend the rescue mission.

A stability and safety audit was performed. International experts were called in.

The nothingness only expanded. It is not the withering put-down that mining is not risk-free, the cop-out that it is impossible to undertake a search-and-rescue mission in such conditions, or the geological probes, geotechnical assessment and blasting of rocks that have failed.

The mission has come down to the truth. The earth beneath is unbeatable by human hand, geological probe, or any archaeological quid. Nothing has worked.

During the initial stage of the rescue attempt, a window of eight days to rescue the workers, it was reported there had been signs of life - someone was knocking inside the container, helplessly, desperately. But a collapse made it necessary for the mine to suspend the rescue mission.

And then there was nothing but empty silence.

What could have been the meaning of this turn of events, that just at the wwbrink of being rescued, the earth conspired to cave in?

Fate or human foible is particularly prominent in this narrative.

But this is not the narrative the families deserve. Nothing melts the heart within more than good news.

Rescue is what the families are hoping for, not recovery.

They need it with the same industrious and victorious fervour as the 33 Chilean miners rescued in 2010. They want a rescue with a Disney ending.

The Chilean mine disaster evoked a nostalgic miracle that the Lily mine can cling to.

The families will want to experience the same ineffable joy as those families in Chile when the 33 miners were brought to the surface after 69 days.

In the bigger scheme of things, this would bring hope to families in anguish.

Although mining disasters are a painful fact of life across the world, no one wants one to befall their loved ones.

This disaster underlines the need for safety in mining and reveals flaws in the relationship between workers and management.

The question that remains unanswered is why Lily mine collapsed. No one knows. A baffling parallel has been drawn with Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared into thin air. Many months later, a piece of debris was found that looked like it might come from MH370.

Call it an elaborate hoax or true discovery, but the news sends home a message of hope that the missing passengers will be recovered after all.

We are looking at two very different mysteries that need more than the hand of man.

It has become clear that human beings can’t realistically achieve anything in the face of disaster.

On the upside, the Brussels bombing can be

solved” by lining up a few people with an ideological bent, who purportedly look like terrorists, to explain what happened.

But not with the Lily mine story. The story is complex.

And if this is a deterministic universe where effects follow causes, as existentialists tell us, the inevitable truth on Lily mine is that the disaster can be blamed squarely on human causes.

Someone is not owning up but blaming the ground mass - the earth that cannot speak back.

People working there have been quoted as saying mine managers knew the area where the container was set up was unstable, and that the mine was fixated on making a profit, rather than on the safety of its workers.

There are those who want to talk but cannot afford to lose the bowl of rice their job provides.

The mine has said it performed a risk assessment, and that risk management and mitigation measures are observed in all phases of mining.

The unvarnished reality of the situation has become undeniable. It is the loved ones who are imprisoned in nothingness.

If the 80m-deep sinkhole has become a tomb, at least let the bodies be retrieved for the families as they deserve proper burial rituals.

The Sunday Independent

Get our free IOL newsletters - subscribe here...

IOL News on Facebook

IOL on Twitter

sign up