Wedged for nearly a week in a cramped cage a half-mile underground, two gold miners got right to the point when rescuers made radio contact: “Get us out.”
The words brought joy to this town of 3,000 on the southern Australian island state of Tasmania, but officials said it could be two more days before emergency crews are able to rescue the trapped men.
Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, were trapped April 25 by a cave-in that killed another miner. Webb and Russell apparently were saved by a slab of rock that fell onto the cage of their cherry-picker and prevented smaller rocks from hitting them after a small earthquake.
To reach the two miners, rescue workers must tunnel through 40 feet of collapsed rock without triggering another collapse.
On Monday, rescuers fed the trapped men cookies, water, a protein drink and vitamin tablets through a tube. The men had been getting by on rancid water that drips through the rocks. Enough oxygen also got through to keep them alive.
They also sent heat packs and fresh batteries for the men’s helmet lamps as well as blankets and dry clothing, health officials said Tuesday.
Mining is dangerous work. In January, 14 miners died in two accidents at mines in West Virginia. In Mexico, 65 miners died in February after an explosion trapped them underground. However, in Canada, 72 potash miners walked away from an underground fire and toxic smoke in January after being locked down overnight in airtight chambers with oxygen, food and water.
On Sunday, the Australian rescuers managed to drill a tiny tunnel that reached the miners. After feeding a cameraman’s microphone through the narrow hole, they established communication with the men.
Russell’s first words were short and to the point: “It’s (expletive) cold and cramped in here. Get us out!”
Those two brief sentences — the first confirmation that the two survived the collapse — brought relief to their families and to the miners working to reach them.
But the joy was tempered by sympathy for the family of Larry Knight, who was crushed in the initial collapse and whose body was retrieved last week.
Tasmanian Medical Retrieval Services director Andrew Hughes said the men had superficial injuries to their hands from attempts to dig themselves out.
“We are fairly optimistic at this stage that these men will be removed alive without any major medical problems,” Hughes told reporters.
The town got the news Sunday of Webb’s and Russell’s survival, and Knight’s relatives were among those who celebrated.
“Last night, Larry’s family came down onto our front lawn with those 200 people and told us how lucky we were and shared our happiness, with their grief,” Russell’s father, Noel, said in a televised interview. “I was grateful. They were the brave people.”
Michael Kelly, Webb’s father-in-law, described how he learned the miners were alive.
“When a man rushed through the door, covered in mud and crying, we thought that was the bad news,” he said. “He burst into the room and fell down on his knees in front of (Webb’s wife) and sobbed ‘He’s alive.”’
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. cameraman Paul Di Benedetto, whose microphone brought the voices of the trapped miners to the surface, said there was a celebratory atmosphere among the roughly 1,000 people gathered near the mine, the Australian Associated Press reported.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said. “The euphoria was palpable.”
With the help of a surgical glove to waterproof the microphone, tape and 300 feet of cable, Di Benedetto was able to lower the microphone to the trapped men.
Mine manager Matthew Gill said Webb and Russell were overjoyed to receive their first sustenance in six days — even though it wasn’t quite their requested meal of bacon and eggs. He said rescuers would make sure the men have enough food as work continues to free them from the mine.
Prime Minister John Howard paid tribute to the people of Beaconsfield, saying they had shown “incredible resilience.”
Russell’s family was even able to joke about the ordeal.
“Todd’s putting in for meal allowance, overtime pay and living away from home allowance, so I hope they’ve got their checkbook ready,” said the miner’s mother, Kaye Russell.
The men, who can now communicate with the rescue team by shouting, resigned from their jobs late Monday, Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported Tuesday.
“Todd Russell said: ’I’ve had enough. You can take your job, I don’t want it,”’ ABC reported. “And Brant Webb agreed with him.”