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St Helena, 31 August 1987

On 31 August 1987, a methane gas explosion at the St Helena gold mine in Welkom caused a mine elevator to plunge 1.4km to the bottom of the mine shaft, claiming the lives of 62 people. These miners were being transported in a double-deck elevator to begin a morning shift at the mine’s No 10 shaft. More than 300 miners who were in the shaft at the time of the explosion managed to escape by working their way through tunnels leading to other shafts.

Sometime after the event, a “solitary rescuer” was identified as saving some of the injured miners, risking his own life. The valiant rescuer was awarded a bronze medal for bravery of the highest degree by the then Chamber of Mines. At the bravery award ceremony for the rescuer, Mr Naas Steenkamp, then Chamber of Mines President, quoted from an English theologian of the 19th century, Bishop Westcott, saying: “Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of man. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows us what we have become.”

Extensive research was undertaken under the auspices of the Chamber of Mines – by the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation (COMRO) and also under the auspices of the Safety in Mines Research Advisory Committee (SIMRAC).

Methane is an odourless, colourless and highly combustible gas that occurs naturally in many coal mines and some gold mines. If the build-up of methane is not detected timeously, it can ignite from a small spark. Today, much better detection technology and communications channels have improved mines’ capacity to manage the methane threat. Methane gas is monitored underground using wireless detection systems for monitoring methane gas and carbon monoxide levels which send precise gas-level readings to surface computer systems. Machines and electricity supplies are automatically shut off once methane gas levels reach 1.5%.

The Leon Commission of Inquiry of 1993 led the way to the establishment of the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC). The work done at the time pointed clearly to the methane gas explosions as a key area of concern in mine safety and health. The Mining Regulation Advisory Committee, under the auspices of the MHSC, appointed a tripartite task team to advise on measures to be taken in mitigating the risk of methane ignitions although the focus of their study was on methane ignitions in coal mines where methane gas is more prevalent. The task team was consequently further tasked with compiling guidelines for the Mandatory Code of Practice for the Prevention of Flammable Gas Explosions in Mines other than Coal Mines.

The study, released in 1994, described a new method – the building of stone dust barriers – to limit coal dust and methane explosions in coal mines. Today, the South African coal mining industry has systems based on overseas technologies to test and modify active suppression methods in conjunction with the wireless detection systems to monitor and control methane gas underground.

Beatrix mine, which is not far from the St Helena Mine, has found a novel way to handle the risk of methane gas – this gas is captured and then either destroyed through flaring or converted to valuable energy. By doing this, the mine reduces its greenhouse gas emissions considerably, contributing to a greener future.

The Minerals Council South Africa and its members are committed to the journey towards zero harm, and to ensuring that every mineworker returns from work unharmed every day. Through the lessons learnt from tragedies such as St Helena, we strive to avoid incidents of any kind – all of which can so easily turn into a tragedy affecting many people and their loved ones.