Authorities reportedly revealed late last week that 31 illegal miners at a shuttered South African gold operation perished in a methane explosion – an incident that occurred nearly a month ago, brought to light only when family members reported them missing.
According to an Associated Press report, all of the workers – believed to be from the county of Lesotho – were at Shaft 5 of the Virginia mine on May 18. The operation in Welkom has been closed since the 1990s.
The national Department of Mineral and Energy Resources said in a statement to the AP that its search of the mine was being delayed because methane gas levels were still dangerously high in the ventilation shaft where the miners are thought to have died.
While the agency is still putting together the details of the event, a spokesperson for Lesotho prime minister Sam Matekane told the news service it had heard from relatives of some miners reporting them missing, prompting Lesotho’s foreign ministry to contact South African authorities.
While South Africa is no stranger to illegal prospecting, particularly at old mines, the miners are often from neighboring countries. Fatal incidents involving illegal miners are common and sometimes go unreported because, the Associated Press noted, survivors are afraid of being arrested when they inform authorities.
The mine was previously owned by Harmony Gold, according to the mineral resources department.