May 10, 2006

Australian miners dug with bare hands to survive

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two Australian miners freed after 14
days trapped deep underground survived by digging through rock
and rubble with their bare hands, drinking dirty run-off water
and joking about their fight for life, rescuers said.

Trapped in a cage the size of a double bed under a cave-in
which looked like a nuclear bomb had struck, it took a maverick
miner to risk his own life to find his trapped mates,
newspapers reported on Wednesday after an ordeal which gripped
the country.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, walked free of the
Beaconsfield Gold Mine in the pre-dawn darkness on Tuesday
after a cave-in on April 25 killed a third miner, Larry Knight.

But it was their night shift supervisor, Gavin Cheesman,
who had checked them only minutes before the cave-in, who
emerged a hero in their rescue.

Against orders, Cheesman climbed over the rockfall which
entombed them 3,000 feet underground and dropped a glove
through the rubble to the two men, whose shouts in response
erased the worst fears of the rescuers.

He returned with water, food and clothing, but any attempt
to rescue them via that dangerous route was banned.

Rescuers had to drill, grind and blast rock to reach Webb
and Russell through a 48 foot tunnel as the two men repeatedly
braced themselves against shock waves from the rescue efforts,
fearing further rockfalls.

The cave-in pinned Russell's left leg, boulders the size of
houses looming over their heads near the sleepy town of
Beaconsfield in the southern island state of Tasmania.

"It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off. You look up and
there's things bigger than houses hanging off the walls," miner
David Johnson told The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.

In almost total darkness, with only his miner's lamp to
guide him, Webb dug for four and half hours through rock and
rubble to free Russell's leg, rescuer Dean Mackrell said.

"I owe my life to Brant," Russell told Mackrell as they
made their way out of the mine, according to The Australian


Neither man has spoken to reporters, but could end up rich
if reports of offers for their exclusive story are confirmed.

One report spoke of a A$6 million (US$4.6 million) offer.

But their survival, like their rescue, was a team effort.

"They both looked after one another. They'll have a special
bond forever," said Mackrell, who spent much of the two weeks
days of meticulous rescue work in a "morale group" that kept
talking to the two men.

Webb and Russell, both big men who love Australian Rules
Football, used their mining skills to survive, guiding rescuers
with a digital camera, and sparks of humor gleamed in the dark.

Rescuers joked with the men, asking them how the diet was
going. Russell lost 23 pounds.

When they heard Webb singing, a rescuer shouted down a
plastic pipe: "This is Big Brother. You are singing without a
microphone. That is a $5,000 fine."

At one stage Russell asked for a newspaper, saying he had
quit the mine and wanted to look for a new job.

Their wire working cage was so small that when one rolled
over the other had to roll over. They survived on water
trickling through the rocks until rescuers bored through hard
rock five times as strong as steel to get to them.

A small plastic pipe was pushed through to the miners and
they were put on a strict diet and exercise regime to enhance
their chances of survival.

At first they were fed only enriched drinks, then egg
sandwiches and ice blocks, chicken soup and finally hot meals
wrapped in foil and passed through the pipe.

To combat muscle fatigue and deep-vein thrombosis the men
exercised as best they could in the cramped conditions, taking
it in turns to stretch and massage muscles.

In the end, Webb and Russell walked confidently from the
mine shaft and into the arms of their wives.

The miners handed out printed thank you cards to rescuers
titled "The Great Escape." As they were driven away by
ambulance, Webb yelled: "You can't kill me, you can't kill me."