Heartbroken Lily Mine families still waiting to say goodbye

2017-02-03 12:36
Christopher Nkambule, Pretty Nkambule's husband. (Lerato Sejake, News24)

Christopher Nkambule, Pretty Nkambule's husband. (Lerato Sejake, News24)

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Barberton - A skinny man in khaki trousers, black boots and with a rifle slung over his shoulder guards the locked gate at the entrance of Lily Mine near Louieville, in Mpumalanga.

A year ago the mine rumbled with earth-moving machinery as rescuers tried to free three miners trapped in a container swallowed by tons of rock and soil when a supporting pillar underground collapsed.

Now the place is deserted.

On Tuesday morning the security guard, who identified himself only as Simon, told us from behind the grey steel gate locked with a padlock that we are not allowed to enter. We take a few photographs and leave.  

Sunday, February 5, will mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster. Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Nkambule and Solomon Nyirenda were working in a lamp room, housed in a shipping container on the surface of the coal mine, when the ground gave way.

Seventy miners were rescued via a ventilation shaft. Rescuers tried repeatedly to get to the three, trapped about 60m underground, but had to withdraw as more ground collapsed.

The search was suspended indefinitely when the mine’s Australian owners, Vantage Goldfields, said they needed R200 million to continue the rescue mission and resume operations. The mine was placed under business rescue. Subsequently, the company’s nearby Barbrook mine was also placed under business rescue as it had to bear the costs of closing the Lily mine.

Their families are heartbroken but still believe that one day their relatives’ bodies will be exhumed from the mine.

Louieville is a rural village a few kilometres from the mine. It is surrounded by tall mango trees under which most of the pupils from the local school spend their time.

Woman of his dreams

The dirt road to Christopher Nkambule’s home is lined with skinny cattle. His single-room dwelling is surrounded by tall trees and bushes. The toilet is a Wendy house not too far from his front door.

Dressed in blue overalls and sandals, the 38-year-old looks like a broken man, the pain in eyes is evident. He says life has been hard after the death of his wife.

“It hurts me because nothing is going as planned anymore. I am living a terrible life now. If she was here she would have advised me to stay strong, but now that I am alone it is hard.”

Christopher’s head hangs low and when he speaks about Pretty. She was the woman of his dreams, he says, his voice breaking. She was 34.

“We were building a house back home. Now we are the laughing stock of the community. If she was still here, we would have finished our house in Nkomazi [near Nelspruit]. Everything came to a standstill when she left.”

The couple have four children. They live with their grandmother. 

Yvonne’s husband Shadrack lives in a house behind the local spaza shop. The father of two sits under a tree and stares at his green Golf 3 parked a few metres away. 

“It has been hard, but we carry on. We take each day as it comes,” the 33-year-old says.

The entire family is hurting, knowing that Yvonne is still underground. She was 33.

“There is a lot I miss about her. She was a good person that rarely got angry. She was always happy and smiling.”

They used to do everything together. Now he just wants the mine to get the bodies out.

Shadrack offers to accompany us to Matsulu, a township about 27km from Louieville, to meet Solomon’s sister Eunice Nyirenda, 34.

We find Eunice sitting on the stoep of her grey cinderblock house. It is still under construction and she does not have money to finish it since she lost her job at the mine when it closed. She worked in the procurement department. She has three sons.

She wears a blue rubber bracelet with the name “Solomon” on it around her left wrist.

“I bought the bracelet because my brother’s birthday is on August 9 and it is for me to feel his presence. I wear this bracelet every day in remembrance of him,” she says.

Solomon was 38. He had been working at the mine since 2008.

“It is very difficult for the family. There is no closure. We were promised that they will try their level best to retrieve the container, whether they were still dead or alive. We just wanted to see their bodies,” she says.

Read more on:    lily mine  |  mbombela  |  mining  |  lily mine collapse

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