Inside Eskom’s Tunnel Tragedy

2013-11-01 00:00

AN excavator may have struck scaffolding kilometres inside a mountain, sparking a tragedy that claimed six lives at Eskom’s flagship R27 billion Ingula hydroelectric power project yesterday.

Work at the critical hydroelectric power project in the Drakensberg range between Harrismith and Ladysmith straddling the KwaZulu-Natal/Free State border, came to a halt yesterday after the disaster, which left another nine injured.

The project is targeted for completion next year and is seen as key to Eskom meeting the country’s power demands, especially for domestic users at peak times.

The 15 workers were deep inside the mountain where they were tunnelling and installing waterways when scaffolding collapsed on top of them.

One worker died immediately and five others died later in the day. The rest were rushed to hospital.

The Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme involves two dams 4,6 km apart and holding 22 million cubic metres of water.

The dams are connected by underground tunnels through which water is pumped, producing electricity through four generators, each capable of outputting 333 megawatts of electricity.

When the incident happened the workers were at an incline in the high pressure shaft that connects the top dam to the powerhouse, more than three kilometres inside the mountain.

It was not immediately clear what caused the working platform to collapse, but The Witness understands from an employee at the scene that an excavator may have hit the scaffolding.

Mlungisi Shongwe, the stakeholder manager at Eskom, confirmed last night that there could be “some truth” in this theory and promised to release more information later.

Andrew Etzinger, the spokesperson for Eskom, later told The Witness that an official investigation is yet to take place, and any comment before that would be presumptuous.

An emergency worker, one of the first at the scene and who asked not to be named, said he was shocked by what he found at the scene.

“We are trained for disasters in this area, but this was totally different to anything I’d experienced before.

“When we arrived on the scene there was just mangled metal and tubes everywhere.

“You don’t know how deep this tunnel is. You don’t know how far you have to go. It was very dark, but we managed to set up lights. The guys worked very well. We managed to transport five patients.”

By midday yesterday , the whole area was under lockdown with only employees and the media being allowed in, while all others were sent to a visitors’ centre some three kilometres away.

An emergency worker, who also asked not to be named for professional reasons, said the tunnel was so wide that vehicles could pass each other heading in and out.

“They managed to remove those still alive and rushed them to hospital, but they struggled to remove those who had died and had to use another entrance on the Free State side to get to them,” said the rescuer.

Shongwe said they would not immediately release the names of those who had been injured or killed as they were still to inform their next-of-kin. He said the workers involved in the accident were contract workers from two companies doing the tunnelling. The workers were a mix of locals and international experts.

He said an emergency unit on site was dispatched the moment the accident happened, the site was locked down and everyone nearby was evacuated.

Shongwe said the project had now been stalled.

“Safety is the primary concern and meeting our timeline is a secondary issue. The senior management of Eskom will be meeting soon to decide on the issue of deadline.”

The power station has been plagued with reports of slow progress and escalating construction costs.

Department of Labour KZN spokesperson Nhlanhla Khumalo said their inspectors were on site investigating the incident yesterday.

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu and President Jacob Zuma offered condolences.

“We mourn with the families of all the workers who have lost their lives in this tragedy, while constructing a better life not just for themselves and their families, but also for the entire country.

“It is painful to all of us. We wish to convey our deepest condolences to the families and fellow workers,” said Zuma.

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