The Truth About The Deadly Vaal Reefs Tragedy

Throughout the years, the mining industry has seen many accidents that claimed the lives of thousands of people. One of the deadliest mining disasters in history happened in 1995 at the Vaal Reefs in South Africa's town of Orkney. At that time, mining was one of the employment opportunities available, and although dangerous, plenty opted to work as miners to be able to make a living for their families.

Per Mining Technology, the mines at Vaal Reefs account for 90% of the gold mined in the area. In May 1995, more than a hundred people died in a mining disaster and others more were left injured. Miners, who had just finished a day's work 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) below ground, boarded a two-floor elevator to take them back up to the surface at approximately 10:30 p.m. At the same time, an underground train was traveling in a tunnel that was supposedly blocked. The train lost control and crashed into a barrier, sending it down the mine and taking with it the elevator's conveyor system. The impact was so strong that the elevator, which can hold up to a hundred people, was crushed to less than half of its original size, per World History Project.

Miners died on impact

After the incident, officials and rescuers reported to the scene, where they determined that it was extremely likely that no one survived. James Motlatsi, the president of the National Union of Mine Workers at that time, talked to reporters about the grisly scene. "Pieces of flesh were scattered all over ... as a two-floor mining elevator was crushed into a one-floor tin box," Motlatsi said, as reported by theĀ L.A. Times. Upon crashing, the train also hit a cage used for inspections on the way down the mine shaft, but luckily, the occupants escaped and survived.

Because the incident happened during a shift change, more than a hundred people were inside the elevator when it went down. Its occupants were left crushed upon impact, and it was a difficult task to recover and identify the individuals who died as the disaster left miners unrecognizable, with most of them missing body parts. In total, 104 miners lost their lives in the tragic accident (via Minerals Council).

What caused the Vaal Reefs tragedy?

According to reports on the Vaal Reefs gold mine tragedy, the accident was a result of human error. The engineer operating the train survived the fall, but he was not able to provide a statement immediately after, as he was left in shock, per L.A. Times. According to reports, the train was not supposed to enter the specific tunnel that it went through, and upon further investigation by the Leon Commission of Inquiry, it was apparent that there had been no safety precaution put in place to prevent the train from entering the shaft.

Furthermore, investigators found out that a detaching hook used on the elevator's conveyor system contributed to the loss of lives. Per Minerals Council, had the hook not opened when the accident happened, the elevator wouldn't have plunged down the mine shaft as the ropes in the conveyor system had sufficient elasticity to carry the weight. The tragic accident pushed research on the use of detaching hooks and its risks. Following the accident, the Vaal Reefs Disaster Trust was established to give financial help to the families of those who died.