Saturday, May 13, 2006


Mixed emotions for Tasmania mine town.
By Phil Mercer BBC News, Sydney

Fear, elation, hangovers and worries about the future - it has been an extraordinary few weeks for the people of Beaconsfield. The rescue of the miners gripped the nation. The epic rescue of trapped miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell was a magical moment for the small Tasmanian mining town. They had spent 14 uncertain days entombed almost a kilometre under ground.
Church bells in Beaconsfield rang out for the first time since the end of World War II. The joy of this close-knit community in northern Tasmania was tempered by the death of Larry Knight, a veteran miner who was killed in the earthquake that caused a devastating cave-in on 25 April.

But amid the highs and lows of great endurance and tragic loss is the cold reality that Beaconsfield's gold mine may never re-open. The gates will remain closed indefinitely while three separate inquiries try to make some sense of the disaster. More importantly they will determine the mine's future. The workers have been paid for a month but they want to get back on the job as soon as possible. At a meeting at Beaconsfield town hall they voted unanimously in support of reopening the mine. "The view of the workforce is that they do want the mine to proceed and be open but obviously not at any price," said Bill Shorten from the Australian Workers Union.

The future of the town is now in doubt."Our members are ready to work but not at the expense of false guarantees of safety, which can be broken by another catastrophe." The mine's owners have said it would reopen if it was safe and viable to do so. Seismic activity or mini-earthquakes in the area are pressing concerns. Last October there was a cave-in at the Beaconsfield facility not far from the rock-fall that killed Larry Knight and trapped Todd Russell and Brant Webb.
If safety cannot be guaranteed then their triumphant rescue will be the final chapter in a century of gold mining in the town.

There are still rich seams to be exploited, but trade unions will insist that commercial considerations must not cloud judgements on safety. The mine is the community's economic heart, employing about 10% of its population of 1,500 people. The local council, as well as the Tasmanian State government and its federal counterpart, are looking at ways of maintaining local employment if the worst happens.

Todd Russell: 34, married with three children
Wanted paramedics to stop off at fast-food joint after rescue
Asked for newspaper to scan for other jobs and overtime pay

Brant Webb: 37, married to childhood sweetheart
Also has three children, including teenage twins
Both men determined to walk out of the rescue tunnel
Rescue in pictures
Press hails rescue

"If the mine were to close we certainly need to put some strategies in place to overcome that," local mayor Barry Easther told Australian television. A proposed pulp mill on the nearby Tamar River would certainly help and locals are optimistic that tourism in the region will continue to flourish. Wineries and walking trails are already popular attractions. The mine itself could be another irresistible draw card. A special Beaconsfield taskforce is expected to meet later this week. "Because of the particular circumstances of this community and its dependence on this mine if it is closed for a prolonged period, there is obviously a case for additional help," said Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, may well have no such worries about the future. Their stories could be worth up to AU$2m (US$1.5m). They are household names whose cheeky good humour has endeared them to millions of Australians. So much has been written and said about these two burly miners from Tasmania, but we have heard almost nothing from them since their great escape. Australian TV heavyweights Channels Seven and Nine are thought to be leading the chase for an exclusive deal, while newspaper reports suggest that US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey is also in the running.


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