Rescuers feared yesterday that two Australian miners would have to spend a 13th night trapped almost a kilometer underground, as a solid rock barrier frustrated their efforts to cut the last small section of an escape tunnel.
The mood was somber but determined at Beaconsfield Gold Mine, as explosive specialists set small charges in an attempt to cut through the final meters of rock and free Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34.
``These are incredibly difficult conditions,'' said mine manager Matthew Gill, as teams worked round the clock in cramped conditions and 30?C heat to reach the pair.
"Miners report we are working with some of the hardest rock they have ever worked with -- five times harder than concrete. It is not known how much longer this will take," mine manager Matthew Gill told reporters yesterday.
"The reality is this is a long and tricky process which we want to make sure we do safely," he said, adding that it was possible the men could be free some time today.
The men, both married fathers of three children, have been entombed in a tiny steel cage deep inside the mine since an earthquake caused a rockfall on April 25.
Over the past week, rescuers have bored through more than 14m of rock using a giant drilling machine in an effort to reach the men.
But cutting the final stage of the escape tunnel has been slow and arduous work, as miners have switched to hand tools in order to avoid causing a cave-in.
Tragedy hit the rescue effort when a senior Australian TV journalist covering the events died at the mine site on the southern island of Tasmania yesterday.
Richard Carleton, 62, had asked a question of the mine manager only moments before he collapsed in front of the large media contingent. He was treated by ambulance officers at the spot but died a short time later.
Prime Minister John Howard expressed his sympathy, and said Carleton was one of Australia's great television personalities.
"I'm shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Richard Carleton. He was a great television personality. I knew him well. I extend my deepest sympathy to his family and colleagues at 60 Minutes," Howard said through a spokesman.