Australian Town Celebrates Successful Rescue of Miners

Beer flowed freely on Tuesday as Beaconsfield celebrated the amazing rescue of two miners entombed underground for two weeks. But as Brant Webb and Todd Russell were reunited with their families, doctors warned they may have suffered psychological trauma from their ordeal trapped in a tiny cage 3,000 feet underground.

"Their physical condition is excellent," said Stephen Ayre, chief executive of Launceston General Hospital where the men were treated. "We just need to be mindful of the psychological outcomes and monitor that through the family and through the supports that they have."

The mammoth effort to free Webb and Russell transfixed Australia and transformed the pair into household names. The men, who survived some 320 hours underground in a cramped steel cage under tons of rocks, walked unaided from the mine before dawn Tuesday after rescuers completed a 52-foot escape shaft, hacking away the last few inches of rock with chisels.

After only a few hours of medical checks, the men discharged themselves from the hospital and at least one of them attended the funeral of Larry Knight, 44, a colleague killed in the April 25 rockfall at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine.

Neither rescued miner gave any media interviews Tuesday.

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Later in the day Russell, wearing a pink T-shirt and limping slightly, went for a bourbon and Coke at his local pub.

He exchanged high fives with friends and chatted with them before sitting down to talk to a television executive who announced a telethon would be held to raise money for the 1,000-strong community, whose future is so closely linked to the fate of the century-old gold mine which faces a possible long closure while the accident is investigated.

Protected by the steel safety cage they were working in and a giant slab of rock that fell on its roof, Russell and Webb emerged from the mine in the pre-dawn light smiling and joking with colleagues and waved at crowds that lined the streets as they made their way by ambulance to the hospital.

But Bob Montgomery of the Australian Psychological Society said the men may now experience feelings of shock, depression, anger, mood swings and possibly survivor guilt, along with nightmares.

"Nearly everyone will come out of a traumatic experience with an acute stress reaction," he said. "There are no super heroes, there are just normal human beings, and the way people react in these situations is utterly predictable."

Opposition Labor Party leader Kim Beazley and unions demanded an independent inquiry into whether the rockfall, caused by a 2.1-magnitude earthquake, could have been avoided.

"No amount of gold is worth an Australian life," said Beazley.

Mine manager Matthew Gill paid tribute to the pair's courage and the heroic efforts of rescuers, who toiled in a cramped tunnel and used hand tools to cut the final section of the tunnel through rock five times harder than concrete.

"Working extraordinary hours in difficult conditions, they have done this while riding an emotional roller coaster," he said.

But the truce between mine management and workers throughout the rescue operation has shown signs of strain.

Bill Shorten, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, said over the weekend that workers had sought assurances about safety at the mine after a rockfall on Oct. 26 last year.

"The company made undertakings that they wouldn't send anyone back until it was perfectly safe," he told the Nine Network's 60 Minutes program. "Now we've had this event. Clearly, that commitment hasn't been kept."

Ironically, Webb, Russell and Knight were shoring up the walls and roof of a tunnel deep inside the mine when the cave-in happened.

When asked to address questions about safety Tuesday, an exhausted-looking Gill merely said: "That will come, just not now."

Australia, the world's biggest exporter of coal, is dotted with mines extracting everything from uranium to diamonds.

Mining remains one of Australia's most dangerous jobs. There are five fatalities per 100,000 employees in the industry, more than double the national fatality rate, according to the Australian Safety and Compensation Council.

But the death rate is declining. Nineteen miners were killed in 1999-2000, and 10 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2005, the Minerals Council of Australia said.

Gold was first discovered in Beaconsfield in 1877 and it proved to be one of Australia's richest veins. The mine employs 120 people and is a major source of income for Beaconsfield.

State, federal and union officials have formed a task force to look at the town's financial viability while the mine is closed. The joint venture that runs the mine has said all staff will be paid full wages for a month — a period that would allow employees and management time to "grieve, rest and regroup to address the future of the mine."

Prime Minister John Howard, who called the rescue "a feat of mining rescue capacity that has almost certainly established a new benchmark in the mining industry around the world," invited the entire community to Parliament, probably next month, and said his government would help if the mine is closed.