Explosives Blast Away Rock in Final Phase of Miner Rescue

Rescuers used explosives Sunday to blast the final stretch of an escape tunnel in a desperate effort to free two Australian gold miners trapped underground for 12 days in a small steel cage.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, have been entombed a half-mile underground since an earthquake caused a rockfall April 25.

CountryWatch: Australia

Beaconsfield, a town of 1,500, planned a huge party when the men are freed, including ringing a local church bell that has not sounded since the end of World War II.

Rescuers have bored through more than 45 feet of rock using a giant drill in an effort to reach the men. Bill Shorten, a union official, said the remaining five feet was harder than concrete and using jackhammers was like "throwing Kleenex at rock," forcing rescuers to begin using explosives to break up the rock and make it easier to cut through.

"I know that no one in this rescue has given up a millimeter of hope," he said. "These two men down there are not going to be defeated."

"This is sheer muscle and will power against rock," he said.

Rescuers, who are in contact with the pair through an intercom system, said Webb and Russell remained in good spirits and understood the delay in reaaching them.

"They are miners, they know what it is like," said Wolfgang Rechberger, a paramedic.

Mayor Barry Easther said the wait was hard on the local community and the men's families, but they sensed the end was close. "They're confident they will get out safely and that's what is carrying them through," he said.

Doctors were on standby to treat the pair.

The men, who have spent more than 270 hours in the tiny cage, will be treated in the same room so they can continue to support each other, said Stephen Ayre, chief of nearby Launceston Hospital.

Webb and Russell have been trapped since a 2.1 magnitude earthquake sent tremors through the century-old mine in the southern state of Tasmania and pinned the tiny cage they were working in under tons of rock.

Suffering little more than scratches, they survived for five days on a single cereal bar and by licking water seeping through the rocks. Rescuers discovered they were alive last Sunday, when a thermal imaging camera picked up their body heat, and on Monday began passing them food and water through a narrow pipe forced through the rubble and rock.

Creature comforts such as iPods, an inflatable mattress, egg and chicken sandwiches and even ice pops followed, and the men are now eating five meals a day, including hot soup and omelets.

The rockfall that trapped the men killed their colleague, Larry Knight, 44. His body was recovered two days later, but the family has delayed the funeral until the rescue mission is over.

Australia has a strong mine safety record compared with many other countries. After the deaths of 16 West Virginia coal miners earlier this year, U.S. labor leaders and experts held up Australia as a possible role model.

According to the Minerals Council of Australia, a trade association that represents 85 percent of Australian mining companies, fatalities are on a downward trend. Nineteen miners were killed in 1999-2000, and 10 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2005. Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coal, and the country is dotted with mines extracting everything from uranium to diamonds.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 152 fatalities in mining and oil and natural gas extraction in 2004. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reported 25 deaths in coal mine accidents that year.