The Sunday News
Fairness Moyana in Hwange ,Sunday News Correspondent
The mining town of Hwange has been plunged into mourning after a 16-year-old boy was killed when a tunnel he was scavenging coke from collapsed yesterday.
The incident which comes in the wake of two similar deaths has shaken residents with some calling for strict measures to be enforced to protect human lives. Coke is a product of distillation of coal and is used to burn metals or make fire. Sources close to developments said the deceased was scavenging for coke at an old mine dump in an area called New Plant Coke Reclaim when tragedy struck.
“The boy was with a friend when the incident happened at around 11am. We understand that the tunnel they had dug collapsed trapping one of them. Rescue efforts conducted by other people nearby who were also scavenging coke failed. A front end loader had to be called from another company which finally removed the heap of the coal rumble but it was too late,” said one witness.
Police attended the scene with the body being taken to Colliery Hospital mortuary. Greater Hwange Residents Trust coordinator, Mr Fidelis Chima called on authorities to act to stop further deaths.
“We are deeply saddened by young people getting trapped at dumpsites and others being burnt and we will intensify our engagements with Hwange Colliery and the Environment Management Authority to make sure that such occurrences do not recur. We will soon roll out public meetings and get the way forward from the community,” said Mr Chima.
Many people in the town have resorted to scavenging for coke at old mine dumpsites. Efforts by the Hwange Colliery Company to restrict access to the dumpsites through placing warning signs and conducting security patrols have failed to address the problem as more people join the trade. A 50kg bag of coke is bought by traders, mostly truck drivers for resale in other cities for as little as US$1.80.
Meanwhile, residents have raised concern over the increase in cases of people getting burnt by underground coal fires at mine old dumpsites. This follows an incident in which eight-year- old Alisha Sekina Mazwiti was seriously burnt by underground coal fires close to an old mine dump last Monday. Her mother, Ethel Ncube told Sunday News in a telephone interview that her daughter had gone to relieve herself at a nearby bush when she got injured.
“Alisha had gone to relieve herself in the bush close to where we stay when the ground collapsed underneath her feet resulting in underground coal fires burning her legs, stomach and chest. I only became aware of what had happened through screams from her elder sister who had rescued her.
The challenge we have in Number Three village is that there is no water and lighting in most of the public toilets so people resort to using the bush to relieve themselves. To make it worse the toilets are seldom clean as water can be unavailable for more than a week at times. I live close to an area that has underground coal fires and sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly where they are, “said Ncube.
She said Alisha who is admitted to Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo was still in pain with the family appealing for assistance to pay medical bills.
“Our details are as follows; Account Name Andy Muzwiti, Account Number 9140001999531, Bank-Stanbic, Branch Hwange or EcoCash 0785437185 (Andy Muzwiti). For money sending platforms: Andy Muzwiti ID Number 79-130720 B79 Phone Number 0785437185 Address Number 3 F29 Hwange”.
Greater Hwange Residents Trust said the increase in the incidents was worrisome.
“Greater Hwange Residents Trust is deeply worried about the recurrence of children burnt at dumpsites and as an organisation we have started engagement with Hwange Colliery Company to come up with a lasting solution. Such occurrences should never be allowed to happen again,” said its coordinator.
Hwange Colliery Company corporate affairs manager, Dr Beauty Mutombe said the company was carrying out awareness campaigns to conscientise the community.
“We have been carrying out campaigns to create awareness on the dangers of straying into areas that might have underground coal fires. We are working with councilors and schools to ensure people are knowledgeable. We have put up sign posts warning people as it is illegal to enter into such places.”
She however, denied that Alisha was injured while going to relieve herself and insisted that she had trespassed into a restricted area.
“It’s not correct that she was burnt while going to relieve herself. Our investigations show that she had actually been sent to get termite soil and on the way back tragedy struck. Contrary to some reports, we have been providing water for consumption and sanitation. Unfortunately, some residents have been vandalising the pipes to divert water to their gardens.”
Mpilo Central Hospital acting Chief Executive Officer Prof Solwayo Ngwenya said the girl suffered life threatening injuries.
He said escharotomy (a surgical procedure used to treat full-thickness circumferential burn) to relieve pressure in the lower limbs has been done.
“Further treatments and procedures may be necessary depending on the clinical course of the condition of the patient. These are life-threatening severe burn injuries and as a hospital we are trying our best to help the victim,” he said.
The Centre for Natural Resource Governance has said raging underground coal fires in and around Hwange town were endangering humans, leaving some with near-death experiences and permanent disabilities.
“This is a call to action and an invitation for dialogue among mining stakeholders in Hwange on reducing and bringing to an end these incidences. There is also need to offer various forms of help to the affected children and their families and ensure they get equal opportunities in life.
Both the families and the children need psycho-social support to overcome the trauma they now live with. Finally, the stories of these children should be told whenever the story of coal is discussed,” said the organisation in its latest report.
The report further said; “According to Global Forest Watch ‘most coal seam fires are ignited by human activity, usually in the process of coal mining or waste removal’.
These fires can burn underground undetected for decades but can occasionally protrude to the surface with severe effects on flora and fauna.” The organisation said it was noted that loose dry materials that land on hot coal dumps also quickly ignite fires that spread to coal seams. Fires travel underground from one coal seam to another and subsist in the ground for many years.
Removal of overburden during mining brings the fires close to the ground. In some cases, the overburden gives in to the heat, causing the ground to collapse.