May 8, 2006

Australia celebrates as miners freed

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two Australian miners trapped in a small
cage deep underground for 14 days walked out of the mine on
Tuesday, triumphantly thrusting their arms into the air after
rescuers freed them shortly before dawn.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, wearing yellow
jackets and mining helmets with their lamps shining brightly,
walked confidently to a large board and removed their name
cards -- declaring they had ended their shift underground.

Their wives quickly rushed to hug them before scores of
rescuers descended on them hugging and shaking hands.

"This is the great escape. This is the biggest escape from
the biggest prison we have, the planet," said Australian
Workers Union national secretary Bill Shorten.

The miners were trapped a kilometer underground in a wire
cage, about the size of a double bed, on April 25 after a
cave-in caused by an earthquake at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine
on the southern island of Tasmania.

"If one rolled over the other had to roll over," said
psychologist Bev Bernst who talked to the miners throughout the
rescue operation. "They have different personalities and they
balanced each other. Their resilience was just amazing."

A third miner was killed in the cave-in. His funeral will
take place later on Tuesday after his family delayed it until
his colleagues were freed.

Before leaving the mine, the men sat in the back of
ambulances laughing and chatting with rescuers. They were then
driven, with the back door of the ambulance open, past an honor
guard of townsfolk and on to hospital.

"I am amazed at their condition. They are pretty tough,"
said mine manager Matthew Gill.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard praised the rescue
operation as a triumph of "Australian mateship" as miners from
Beaconsfield and mine rescue experts from around the country
worked against the odds to save the lives of two colleagues.


News of the rescue was heralded by the mine's siren and
then the bell at the small town's Uniting Church pealed in
celebration just after 5 a.m. (3 p.m. EDT).

Residents of the sleepy town walked and drove toward the
mine site, honking car horns and cheering, to greet the miners
when they emerge from the mine.

Beaconsfield's Club Hotel poured free beer to celebrate.

Many Australians woke before dawn to watch the final stages
of the rescue live on television, some hanging Australian flags
from their homes to celebrate the news that the men were free.

Webb and Russell were found alive five days after the
cave-in, but digging the 16-meter (48-feet) long horizontal
rescue tunnel toward them was painstakingly slow as miners had
to grind through rock five times harder than concrete.

Food and fresh water was delivered to the men through a
small plastic pipe along with clothes, a digital camera and
four iPod players -- the later allowing them a sense of their
own space.

Before beginning the final vertical dig, rescuers broke
through to the miners with probes late on Monday, ensuring they
were digging in the right position.

Over the past few days, Webb and Russell spread grout
beneath their wire cage to stabilize the ground and minimize
the chances of a rock fall when they were finally reached.
Miners had feared the vertical digging may cause a cave-in on
top of rescuers.

Rescuers used hand boring equipment to make the final break
through to the men, who were then dragged on stretchers from
their tomb to a main mine shaft.

"The trapped miners greeted rescuers with cries of
'yeehaa'," said rescuer Rex Johnson who reached Webb and

"The boys were ready to come home. They had their bags
packed for some time. Everyone's elated. To get their mates out
after such a long period of time has been unreal," he said.

Every major Australian radio, newspaper and television
station has been camped at the mine site for days. Journalist
cried as the trapped miners walked free.

Media executives and agents have reportedly been jockeying
for exclusives with the men once they are freed, with talk of
A$250,000 ($192,000) for an interview and A$2 million for a
combined magazine, television, book and movie deal.

Mining is one of the world's most dangerous jobs. Worldwide
10,000 miners die every year. In Australia, 11 miners have been
killed in accidents in the past year. The Minerals Council of
Australia recorded 229 deaths from 1990 to 2000.