Jan van Wyk
Two hundred metres east, Jan van Wyk, the shift boss, checked that all the sticks of dynamite were correctly charged. Shifting his 1.82m frame with the ease of a ballet dancer, he gently tugged on the wires to make sure all the fuses were well embedded in the dynamite.
“Kom, umfaan, Bring the cable.” The young Zulu boy unrolled the copper core wire as the huge white man worked his way back out the tunnel.
Jan easily reached up to the ceiling to ensure that the brattice cloth was firmly tied across the tunnel to restrict the force of the blast. The pair made their way around the corner and sheltered. They would be protected from any shards of rock that had the potential to shear through the brattice cloth with enough force to take off a man’s head.
Jan stripped off the ends of the two wires. He checked the safety switch and screwed the bare copper ends around the terminals. “Pasop, umfaan. stand back.”
Jan’s voice carried through the nearby tunnels as he bellowed the instruction: “Ears!”
Some of the older mine workers ignored the order, as they were already partially deaf from years of unprotected exposure to the booming explosions.
The Afrikaner’s big hands gripped the handles of the Healy & Burgess plunger and pulled them up to ready the ignition box. He flicked the safety switch and easily used his weight to generate the 2,000-volt charge to ignite the 36 sticks of dynamite.
Jan enjoyed the power of the blast, as the airwaves thundered through the tunnels, nearly knocking men over. With satisfaction, he felt the ground tremble as the explosion released nearly 10 tons of coal. Slowly, the eerie quiet returned to the tunnels as the last loose pieces of rock and coal tumbled to the floor.
Then they heard it.
The Xhosas called it the waking of the spirits.
The Zulus said that it was the earth complaining from its bowels against disturbance. Anyone who had worked in the mine for long enough knew that the terrible sound meant a fault had sheered and that wherever the weakest point was, it would give way.
Everyone stood still. “Oh my God!” Jan crossed himself.
Again the distant thunder coursed through the earth beneath the men’s feet as the rock pulled and stretched, fighting to release millions of years of pent-up energy.
Splinters of shale spat through the fine coal dust, showering the miners.
And then it came.
First one creak then another and another as the roof sunk all of its weight on the 20cm-thick wattle and pine poles. Then the earth shook as somewhere nearby the roof could wait no more, and a blast of air washing over Jan told him a major fall had happened.
“It’s dropping in Section E”, Jan shouted over the noise, instinctively moving in the direction of the danger.
Leading his crew, they rushed through the tunnels, easily finding the fastest way forward.
As they entered Section E, the deep, distant groan that warned the men that the danger was not yet over was drowned out by panic and shouting.
Gungu, Edward and Goodwill were being helped by nearby spans as they franticly tore at the rubble blocking the tunnel and access to the slot.
How many are in there?” bellowed Van Wyk.
Goodwill gasped between lifting rocks: “Baas, it’s my brother’s son, Bafozi. Only him. He told us to move back just in time.”
“Maak gou, hurry up and bring the skips and the first aid!”
Half an hour later, with sweat and blood from cut hands greasing the fallen rock, the final pieces that blocked Bafozi’s body off from the rescuers were removed.
Jan van Wyk watched the Swazis’ limbs swing in unison as they sang their workers’ song from the Ezulweni Valley:
“The day is young,
My limbs are strong,
The blood of a thousand cattle
Make my labours easy.”
It never failed to surprise him how the workers would rhythmically chant themselves into a trance in these situations. Despite already having laboured for a full eight-hour shift, they found more energy to relentlessly tear at the giant shards of slate and crumbled coal in a perhaps futile effort to save the young worker.
Shortly after they had begun clearing the rock, the mine’s Swazi induna, who led all the men of his tribe and had been working in a section nearby, arrived at the site of the collapse.
He was a wise old man of 53, stronger even at his age than most young men. But, he did not touch any of the fallen rock. Instead, he took over and led the chant.
Jan noticed that the pace of the workers’ movements didn’t falter, but that there was a renewed intensity to their efforts. The men lifted and moved massive rocks with hypnotic ease.
“I see his foot,” shouted Goodwill.
“Yega! Stop and wait!” Jan had seen that the wall of the coal above the slot had sheared, then dropped only a few inches, wedging on to a protruding seam. Fine cracks traced across the precariously supported roof only inches above where Bafozi had been working.
“Bring me some sprags, checha, hurry.”
Jan motioned to the men to move back as he carefully picked his way to where Bafozi’s foot protruded. Only about a foot of rock covered the Swazi’s body, and Jan knew that he still had a chance.
Unless the tons of roof gave way.
Working with the skill of a surgeon, Jan carefully examined each of the smaller top rocks lying closest to the wall of coal. Only when he was certain that a rock did not support any weight did he remove it.
Suddenly, a rat darted out from the rubble and Jan cursed as he nearly reacted.
Then, to the side, there was another movement as a rock toppled noisily to the coal floor near Bafozi’s foot.
Somewhere deep in the Earth, a low groan carried through the rock, and Jan’s spine shivered as dust dropped from the balanced coal face down his neck. From the dark gap, a splintering sound gave warning that the rock was about to collapse on to the trapped worker at any moment - if Jan did not support it.
He pushed one of the short, stocky sprags into the blackness, feeling for a firm base.
“Give me a wedge.” He pushed it gently but firmly between the top of the sprag and the underneath of the supported rock. Normally a sprag could support four tons of weight, but not if the roof crumbled around it.
“Checha, we must pull him out. It’s our only chance.”
Gungu, Edward, Goodwill and Jan gripped the trapped worker’s overalls and boot.
“I’ll count: kunye, kubili, kutsatfu.” The rocks covering Bafozi twisted slightly as the men managed to move him a few inches.
“Woza!” The induna sprang forward as he noticed Bafozi’s other boot. He called for the men to come.
As they gathered, he closed his eyes and spoke. “Nkosi, God... ”
The hairs on Jan’s neck prickled and his spine shivered as the induna invoked the help of the spirits, his booming voice carrying through the tunnels of the mine.
“...Jova!” On the last word, a call to pull, the pile of rocks covering Bafozi’s body toppled off as he was dragged free.