57 Dead, 17 Missing From Tanzanite Mine Floods

Several hours of torrential rains on March 28 at the Merelani Hills in Tanzania was all that was needed to turn the Tanzanite mine pits and connecting tunnels of Block B into a horrifying massive muddy grave, killing at least 57 miners, with 17 still missing.

“It was just one storm, but it was a torrential downpour,” says Zane Swanepoel, new managing director for TanzaniteOne mining operations in Block C. “Our boys measured 155 millimeters [roughly 6 inches] of water in about an hour and a half.” Modern mining operations at TanzaniteOne’s Block C prevented rains from entering the few covered shafts.

But at Block B, in stark contrast to Block C, mining is all artisinal. “A lot of shafts are interlinked,” says Swanepoel. When water goes into one open shaft, everyone gets water from connecting tunnels. And with that much water, it’s not just a matter of pumping it out. Even though Block B is all privately owned mining claims, Swanepoel of TanzaniteOne is spearheading rescue operations there in Tanzania. “We’ve de-watered as much as we can,” says Swanepoel. “But for Block B, it’s extremely difficult to get any kind of pumping equipment down into those shafts. Water pushed sediment and mine workings down in front of shafts and tunnels, and this has trapped these guys.”

Any assistance TanzaniteOne can give, Swanepoel provides, including efforts for recovery, of assistance with families still looking for loved ones, as well as preventative measures for future mining safety.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult position for TanzaniteOne. They lease Block C from the Tanzanian government. Their mining operation is with modern equipment and safety precautions in place. Block B is divided up into privately owned parcels, mined only by locals with hand tools, with seemingly no regard for mining safety regulations. Workers go down precarious mine shafts, tunnel their way in random directions, mining for tanzanite. The days are long, the work is hard, and the risks are extremely dangerous. And when heavy rains come in fast and furious with little or no warning, there’s virtually no escape.

As Swanepoel knows, this is not the first time flash floods have killed tanzanite miners. In fact, this is the third time in fifteen years. Just 10 years ago,a similar disaster happened, with over 100 miners being killed. The mines are located in the northern part of the African nation south of Arusha city.

Flash flooding in several small scale operations neighboring in Block B did penetrate TanzaniteOne’s mining operation in Block C, creating enough problems for TanzaniteOne to have to fly in several pumps. However, this was minimal compared to the rest of the hill. “Nobody [at TanzaniteOne] was injured, hurt, or killed,” says Swanepoel. “Reports that claim otherwise were incorrect.”

Here in the States, Jewelry Television, one of the larger retailers of tanzanite, was quick to take up the cause, and announced on April 9, just one week later, the creation of a Tanzanian Relief Fund to support those affected by the disaster. Funds collected are to enable the American Red Cross to support the Tanzania Red Cross Society’s humanitarian relief efforts.

“We just mailed a check last week,” says Kelly Fletcher, studio public relations for Jewelry Television in Knoxville, Tenn. JTV donated $50,000 to the American Red Cross designated 100% in support of the relief efforts in the Arusha region. Additional funds are being raised through the micro-site that the American Red Cross set up. You can access the link at www.jtv.com.

JTV is using the American Red Cross as the conduit for getting the funds to the Tanzania Red Cross National Society. “They have people on the ground working on disaster relief and have told JTV that the money is currently helping with conducting disaster assessments,” writes Fletcher, “providing basic non-food relief items, such as blankets and insecticide-treated mosquito nets, as well as promoting health and hygiene awareness to reduce vulnerability towards diseases, including malaria and water borne infections.”

The Tanzanite Foundation along with the American Gem Trade Association announced similar efforts to raise money for Tanzanian flood relief. “We’re doing what we can, and help as much as we can,” says Hayley Henning, Tanzanite Foundation director of retail relations. Henning notes that there’s been money coming in from TanzaniteOne and TanzaniteOne members, as well as retailers and others to help with relief efforts. Funds collected are being distributed for immediate relief and assistance to the families that have been affected. “A dollar goes a long way,” says Henning. “The Foundation works very hard for the wives and children in the mining area, and for the people who have lost fathers and husbands. This is a tragedy.”

For more on how you can help, log onto www.JTV.com, www.AGTA.org, and/or www.TanzaniteFoundation.com.