LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — A man has been pulled alive out of a Zambian mine nearly a week after dozens of informal miners were trapped under landslides caused by heavy rain, rescuers said Wednesday.
Two bodies were also retrieved from underneath debris at the open-pit mine in the southern African country's Copperbelt province. Government officials said more than 30 miners could still be trapped underground, although they were uncertain of the exact number.
The 49-year-old survivor was rescued Tuesday night, according to a statement by Zambia's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit. He told rescuers he had been struggling for five days to find a way out of one of the collapsed tunnels at the copper mine near the city of Chingola, around 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the capital, Lusaka, the statement said.
The man was taken to the hospital, rescuers said. They gave no details on his medical condition but said he was able to talk to officials from his hospital bed.
One body was recovered a few hours after the miner's rescue and a second body was found and taken out later Wednesday, but they were yet to be identified, the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit said.
The bodies are the first to be recovered following the disaster last week.
After the rescue, government officials told reporters that 38 families had reported missing relatives, but those reports had to be verified. The government has previously said more than 30 miners were trapped, while the district commissioner of the area has said at least 36 miners were underground when the landslides hit, burying them.
Authorities have found it difficult to give an exact count of how many were inside the three tunnels because they are suspected to be illegal miners who were digging during the night to look for copper ore without the knowledge of the mine owner.
"Officially we have about 38 people whose families have come to claim they are missing." Copperbelt minister Elisha Matambo said.
Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema visited the mine on Tuesday and said he hoped that there were survivors. A rescuer said earlier in the week that they had heard multiple voices coming from under the rubble at one of the tunnel sites and raised hope there would be survivors, although he said there were likely to be numerous deaths, too.
Rescue teams have been working constantly since last Friday to clear the debris and pump water out of the pit where the tunnels are, but the efforts have been complicated by more rain, which left one of the sites completely flooded.
Police said over the weekend that all of the miners were presumed dead and had likely drowned in the tunnels. It released seven names or partial names and announced they had died. The public statement was criticized by the government, which said it was too early to declare them dead.
Zambia is among the top 10 copper producers in the world and Chingola has large open-pit mines, some of them stretching for kilometers (miles). They are surrounded by huge waste piles of rocks and earth that have been dug out of the mines. The government said debris from one of the waste piles collapsed on the miners' tunnels.
Illegal mining is common in the area, where artisanal miners go into mines without the knowledge of the owners to try and find and extract copper deposits, usually without any proper safety procedures.
On his visit, Hichilema said authorities were just focusing on saving lives.
"Here there is no illegal miner. Our job is to take our people out of the pit," he said. "Our commitment is to do everything to save the lives that are down there."