Timika. Rescuers dug through rocks and earth on Wednesday as they struggled to reach 25 workers trapped underground after a tunnel collapsed at a US-owned mine in Papua, killing at least four.
Ten people have so far been rescued following Tuesday’s accident at Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg, one of the world’s biggest gold and copper mines in the mountains of rugged Papua province.
Freeport Indonesia, the local subsidiary of the US firm, said it had suspended all production at Grasberg “as a sign of solidarity and sympathy” for the workers.
Rescuers are finding it difficult to locate those who were trapped by the collapse as they carried out safety training, as the site remains unstable.
The 50-strong team, which includes Freeport and police personnel, were using heavy machinery such as bulldozers, as well as saws, wheelbarrows and jacks to clear debris from the site.
“They have been working non-stop night and day to get to the workers, but the process is tedious and time-consuming,” said local police spokesman I Gde Sumerta Jaya.
“Each time they dig, there are small landslides, so they have to put wooden planks on the tunnel walls and roof to prevent rocks from falling.”
Oxygen was being piped into the tunnel, which is cut into a mountainside, but it is impossible to know whether those inside are dead or alive, he added.
Kristian Sitepu, who had been instructing the group, managed to dash out of the tunnel just before it caved in, Jaya said.
“He told us he heard rats on the roof just seconds before the collapse, but it turned out to be the rumbling of falling rocks,” said the police spokesman, adding it was not yet clear what caused the accident.
The 10 who were hauled out alive during overnight rescue efforts had been taken to a company hospital and were all in a stable condition, Freeport stated.
Thirty-nine people, including direct employees and contractors, had been in the tunnel, which is not part of the mining area, when the accident happened, the company said, giving no indication as to the cause of the collapse.
Mining accidents are common in Indonesia, but they normally happen in illegal and unregulated mines, not at sites run by large companies.
Freeport did not disclose the nationalities of all the workers involved in the accident, but the vast majority of the more than 24,000 employees at Grasberg are Indonesian.
The company said that production was earlier partially suspended at Grasberg to help with evacuation and rescue efforts, but they had now decided to halt production entirely.
“As a sign of solidarity and sympathy with our colleagues who are still trapped” all production had been stopped from Wednesday afternoon, company spokeswoman Daisy Primayanti told AFP.
Freeport will assess whether production could be resumed on Thursday, she added.
The tunnel collapse is just the latest problem to hit the mine. In 2011, a three-month strike by thousands of workers crippled production and only ended when the firm agreed to a major pay rise.
Earlier this month, some 1,100 workers employed by Freeport contractors staged a three-day strike over pay but it caused only minimal disruption to production.