BEACONSFIELD, Australia – Rescuers measured progress in fractions of an inch on Monday as they chipped away rock harder than concrete to free two Australian gold miners trapped for nearly two full weeks deep underground.
Working through the night, a team of miners using pneumatic drills tried to punch through 45 feet of rock to reach Brant Webb, 37 and Todd Russell, 34, who have been entombed in a steel cage almost 3,000 feet underground since April 25.
On Monday, rescue teams were forced to shore up the escape shaft, a painstaking safety measure that was expected to further delay the effort to reach the men.
"It is still precarious," said the official, Bill Shorten. "This work is complex and difficult, unique in its challenges, that's why they have to set it up right."
Less than six feet from the trapped men, the rescuers switched to hand drills to avoid causing a cave-in. The solid rock crust, 59 inches thick, slowed progress to fractions of an inch.
"We are dealing with some of the hardest rock they have ever worked with, up to five times harder than concrete," the mine's manager, Matthew Gill, said grimly. "It is not known how much longer this will take."
Shorten said the rescue workers were directly below the cavity where Webb and Russell have survived for more than 280 hours, and were drilling vertically through the rock. Only one miner at a time could work in the cramped tunnel, lying on his back and wielding an 88-pound drill above his head.
"Most Olympic athletes would struggle in the conditions these hard rock miners are working in," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday.
The men, both fathers of three who have been in communication with their would-be rescuers, have been stuck since an earthquake caused a rockfall April 25. The rockfall killed 44-year-old Larry Knight, who was working in the same tunnel. His body was recovered two days later. Although his family had said his funeral would not be held until the two miners were freed, they decided to hold it Tuesday, local officials said.
The tense drama recalled the rescue in 2002 of nine miners from the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania after being trapped for 77 hours underground — about one-quarter as long as the Australian miners have spent awaiting rescue.
Officials had hoped the men would be freed Saturday, prompting hundreds of local residents to gather at the mine's gates eager to catch a glimpse of the men who have become local heroes.
The death of a renowned television journalist from a suspected heart attack, just minutes after asking a question at an afternoon news conference, further cast a shadow over the town. Richard Carleton, an award-winning reporter with the Nine Network's "60 Minutes," had been asking about the mine's safety record.
Protected by the steel safety cage they were working in, Webb and Russell suffered little more than scratches in the rock fall. The pair survived for five days on a single cereal bar and by licking water seeping through the rocks around them.
Rescuers discovered they were alive last Sunday when a thermal imaging camera picked up their body heat, and a day later began passing them food and water through a narrow pipe forced through the rubble and rock.
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, fatalities are decreasing. 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 deaths 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.