Becoming a miner in South Africa during the 20th century was a dirty and dangerous case of needs must. With a chronic lack of alternative employment, a workforce of black miners came from all over the country to live in dormitories and earn modest wages that nonetheless meant survival for families left behind. Sadly, many never returned to their loved ones, as around 70,000 were killed in mining accidents between 1910 and 2000.
In May 1995 over 100 of that total perished at the Anglo-American Corporation’s Vaal Reefs Mine near Orkney, southwest of Johannesburg. Even a nation hardened to mining tragedy was horrified by the gruesome disaster at one of South Africa’s largest and most profitable gold mines. Miners had finished their shift in the sweltering depths of the 2.3 km (1.4 mi) Shaft Number Two and were returning to the surface in an elevator cage. High above, their fate was sealed when an underground train entered a tunnel that was supposed to be closed, went out of control and careered into the shaft.
The falling train hit elevator cables, sending the cage plunging downwards in free fall. A second after it hit bottom, the heavy locomotive smashed into the already compressed cage and further reduced the substantial two-tier structure to what the President of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) later described as ‘a one-floor tin box’. The occupants were pulverized, body parts were scattered everywhere and identifying individuals proved to be a long and distressing process. Two days after the accident a representative of Anglo-American grimly told a press conference: ‘The bodies are badly mutilated, it’s hot and they’re beginning to decompose’. The NUM established a trust fund for dependents of victims, who were located as far apart as the rural areas of Lesotho, Transkei, Swaziland and Botswana.
When: May 10 1995
Where: Orkney, Klerksdorp, South Africa
Death toll: 105 dead
You should know: The one person who did actually survive the catastrophic accident was the driver of the runaway train, who managed to jump clear before it toppled into Shaft Number Two and fell towards the rapidly ascending elevator cage.