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Mine Disaster Toll Could be 62

September 2, 1987 GMT

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ As many as 62 people may have been killed in the St. Helena gold mine explosion and elevator plunge, which the mine manager said was probably caused by methane gas.

The General Mining Union Corp., which owns the mine, had reported previously that 10 men were confirmed dead and another 40 were in the elevator and presumed dead.

But company chairman Steve Ellis said today that 12 employees of a contracting company may have been in the elevator that fell to the bottom of the shaft as a result of the explosion.

Only one of the bodies has been recovered. Mine manager Gary Maude said Tuesday that methane gas ″was one of the more likely possibilities″ for the cause of the explosion.

Meanwhile, two major newspapers today called for a crackdown on right-wing terrorism following a series of attacks on black trade union offices.

The explosion Monday severed a cable and sent an elevator crashing to the bottom of the 4,521-foot shaft at the St. Helena gold mine in Welkom, 138 miles south of Johannesburg.

The bodies of 10 other miners not in the elevator have been located. Five injured miners were rescued.

″In these circumstances, there is no hope that any of the 40 could be found alive,″ Ellis said earlier, before raising the possibility of an additional 12 victims.

Rescuers continued working their way toward the elevator, which they believe is among 130 feet of concrete and steel debris at the bottom of the No. 10 shaft.

Conditions in the shaft were very unstable, said statements from General Mining Union Corp., owner of the St. Helena and two other mines where more than 200 men have died in accidents in the past year.

Methane - an ordorless, colorless and explosive gas produced by decomposed animal and vegetable matter underground - was blamed for an explosion in April at Gencor’s Ermelo coal mine that killed 34 miners. South Africa’s worst-ever gold mine accident occurred in September 1986 at Gencor’s Kinross mine, where 177 men died.

In other labor developments, Vusi Khumalo, president of the black postal workers union, said negotiations to end a two-month national strike were broken off Tuesday night after the Post Office and Telecommunication s Workers Association learned that its members had been injured in altercations with police in Johannesburg.

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Police had surrounded two buildings where the post office workers meet. Police said the action was taken under emergency regulations because of memorial services scheduled in the buildings for two black men who were hanged Tuesday for killing a township councilor and five of his relatives in unrest in 1985.

Witnesses said police had used whips and police dogs against workers leaving one building and on hundreds of onlookers on the streets. Some people were bitten and others were hurt by shattered glass when the fleeing crowd pressed into a storefront window.

Police reported using tear gas against the crowd and said two officers were slightly injured and eight black men were treated at a hospital for cuts.

Khumalo and the Post Office said they hoped the negotiations would resume today to end the dispute over pay parity and equal treatment of black and white employees. The strike has closed post offices in many black townships and slowed deliveries in white areas.

One of the newspapers calling for the crackdown on right-wing terrorism, Business Day, said: ″Unless the law is upheld ... the appetite for violent political statements will grow.″

The Star of Johannesburg, the country’s largest daily, said there were growing suspicions that the black labor movement ″is being punished for its role in opposing the government.″

The editorials followed an explosion Saturday which severely damaged the Cape Town office of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor federation.

On Monday, two offices of a congress affiliate - the South African Allied Workers Union - were set afire in East London. Union officials said both fires were started deliberately.

Business Day, the country’s main financial newspaper, said recent bombings of COSATU offices ″bore hallmarks of paramilitary skill.″

″Failure to find and prosecute the perpetrators of these attacks will seem to many people, probably a majority of all South Africans, to confirm suggestions that the police force itself has been heavily inflitrated by violent right-wing groups,″ the newspaper said.

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