Don't Look Down!

Below the trapped miners was an empty elevator shaft, 2,000 feet deep. Only the extraordinary strength of one man might save them

John Dyson Updated: Feb 3, 2021 13:35:34 IST
Don't Look Down!

Cradling his hard hat and bag of sandwiches, Mario Cockrell sprinted for the elevator and shoved his way among the miners jammed inside. Many of them grumbled at him: “Late again!” The doors slammed shut, signal bells rang and the cramped, two-level cage began a 16-minute, 1.6-km-long descent into the President Steyn gold mine in Welkom, South Africa. It was 8:15 p.m. on 23 March 1993.

Known as the ‘Mary Ann,’ the passenger elevator carried 21 men this trip, its bare aluminium interior lit only by their cap lamps. For nearly 10 minutes the ride went smoothly. Then, suddenly, the elevator cage lurched and stopped dead.Rassie Erasmus, the Mary Ann’s silver-haired attendant, was unworried. “Hold still,” Mario heard him say. “She’ll move in a minute.”

Mario wasn’t so sure. He heard a strange slapping sound from the darkness overhead. Then it hit him. Great coils of heavy steel-wire rope were piling up on the elevator roof. The huge winch that had been lowering the cage was still running! We’re in trouble, thought Mario. Something had blocked the cage’s descent, and whatever had snagged it could give way at any moment. The cable heaping on the roof, even a vibration from the men inside, could nudge the 2.4-ton cage into free fall. The slack wire would snap as it was jerked tight. Nothing then would stop them from plunging 2,000 feet to the bottom—the height of two Eiffel Towers. Mario shouldered Rassie aside to reach the door. “We’ve got to get out,” he said.

“We’re Going to Die”

From boyhood, Mario Cockrell, one of 11 children, had learnt to fend for himself. His father had died when Mario was 12. During his teens, he had hunted in the Kalahari Desert with friends among the Bushmen, living off the land with a homemade bow and arrows. As a young man, Mario had been an amateur boxer and a physical trainer with the South African army, before settling down with his Belgian wife, Connie, and hiring on at the mine. Now 31, he was saving for his dream: a couple of trucks to run as a small business, and a few acres of land for Connie and their sons, three-year-old Etienne and five-month-old Mario, Jr.

Mario forced open the elevator door and looked out. His cap lamp shone on a sheer concrete wall plunging almost 800 metres straight down. Between him and the wall lay a five-foot-wide abyss. To his right, the wall cornered and ran along the elevator’s side. To his left was empty space—a series of six adjoining shafts used by other elevators. By luck, the Mary Ann had stopped exactly level with a horizontal reinforcement beam that provided a 1.5-foot-wide ledge. Stepping gingerly on to this beam with his back to the abyss, Mario shuffled halfway around the elevator, kicking rubble over the edge but hearing nothing hit bottom. Leaning on the rear of the elevator, still with a five-foot-wide chasm at his back, he spied a cluster of vertical pipes strapped to the outside of the beam.

Below him, the shaft seemed to recede into infinity. Every 10 feet, it was ringed by another set of cross-beams. And every 200 feet, he could see a platform where a brightly lit tunnel led into a working stope of the mine. Because of the nightshift change, all the tunnels were now deserted. Then Mario felt a trembling that grew until the whole framework of girders hummed. Falling stones and dust sprayed his face as he peered upwards. Another car was coming!

The whooshing sound, like a distant train, grew louder and louder. It was the No. 6 cage, plummeting down the shaft just left of the Mary Ann, carrying tons of gravel for mixing cement. Now less than 800 metres above, it would speed past in under 60 seconds. As it did, Mario realized, it would catch the loops of cable spilling off the Mary Ann’s roof and drag the cage and men into the void. God help us! he prayed.

Just 30 feet blow the stranded cage, Mario saw the station for ‘37 level’—3,700 feet beneath the surface. It would have a telephone and emergency button for halting all cars in the shaft. I’ve got to get to it, Mario thought. But how?His eye fell on the cluster of vertical pipes. Most were too bulky to grip. Then he noticed a galvanized-steel water pipe, barely 2.5 cm in diameter and encrusted with dried mud. There was no time to descend the pipe hand over hand. He grasped it and stepped off the ledge. Then he relaxed his grip.




For an instant Mario fell free. He squeezed the pipe again to brake himself, the rough surface ripping the skin off his palms. Now halfway between cross-beams, he felt the pipe begin to bend away from the wall. He let himself drop to where the pipe was more secure. At last his boots hit the cross-beam level with the station. But he was still five feet out from the platform. Between him and safety was the yawning shaft. He took a leaping stride across it, grabbing a gutter pipe on the other side to haul himself forwards. As he did, the gutter came away in his hands.

For a split second, Mario teetered in space. With a desperate heave he got his right foot barely on to the lip of the platform, straddling the dark gap. Then he lunged frantically, hooked his fingertips into the platform gate and pulled his other leg across. He could hear his fellow miners’ shouts of fear as Cage 6 roared closer.

The emergency alarm should have been in a red box bolted to the rock wall. Where was it? With the mind-numbing roar of the big cage was nearly on top of him, he saw the alarm, obscured under a coating of dust. At that instant, Cage 6 whooshed past the Mary Ann, snagging its cable and filling the shaft with dust, sparks and thunder. Leaping to the red box, Mario smashed his fist through the glass and punched the button.

There was a great squealing sound as Cage 6 ground to a halt 70 feet below. Loops of the Mary Ann’s cable were hooked beneath it. A few more feet would have meant catastrophe. With the telephone, Mario reached the elevator supervisor. “Keep the brakes on! Move nothing!” he shouted.

In the cage above, men were praying and weeping. “We’re going to die!” one cried. As the dust cleared, Rassie Erasmus glanced down and was stunned to see Mario climbing back towards them, hand over hand.


“Trust Me!”

When Mario reached the men, he found them round-eyed with fear. “It’s all right,” he said. “Everything’s stopped. You can come down now.” Not one dared move. During his army service, Mario had always led by example. “Pass me my bag,” he said now, adopting an angry tone. The frightened men passed his sandwich bag out of the Mary Ann. “Look at what I’m doing and just follow.”

With the bag hooked over one shoulder, he started to lower himself down the pipe. But as the beam of his lamp played underneath the Mary Ann, he saw something that made his blood run cold. Somehow, the Mary Ann’s vertical guide rails had become twisted, throwing it out of alignment. This had caused a corner of the elevator to catch on a bracket clamped to a girder. The weight of the elevator and its men was now resting on barely an inch of thin metal and a couple of screws. If I don’t get those men down, they’ll die, Mario thought. Help me, God!

Climbing back to their level, Mario told them, “This thing’s going to drop at any second. Don’t touch it, just hold your breath and come down the pipe with me.” Nobody moved.

Mario picked out the smallest miner, a man of about 60 kg. Holding the pipe with one hand, he reached out with the other, grasped the front of the man’s jacket and jerked him towards him. The miner screamed and tried to cling to the cross-beam. But Mario was not a man to be disobeyed. He punched the miner in the ribs. As the miner slumped, Mario seized the man’s jacket again and pulled him off the ledge. As if curling a barbell, he held the miner in mid-air so their faces were level.

“You see?” he said curtly. “I can hold you with one hand. Trust me.”

The man threw his arms around Mario’s neck but, terrified, would not hold on to the pipe. Mario loosened his own grip for a split second so they’d fall a short distance. Jolted, the man grabbed the pipe. With Mario cradling him, they inched lower. Watching in horror, the men on the crowded ledge above were sure the flimsy pipe would break.

Finally, Mario and the miner reached the cross-beam at level 37. Now Mario had to figure out how to make the five-foot leap to the station platform. The young miner in his arms was in no condition to jump for it. Leaving the man standing on the cross-beam, clinging to the pipe, Mario stepped out into space once more. At their utmost stretch, his legs just straddled the gap. He twisted his powerful body around and gripped the man’s jacket.

“Let go of the pipe exactly when I say!” The man nodded fearfully.

“Let go!” Mario bellowed. The man obeyed, and Mario swung him across the gap, throwing him onto the platform and using the momentum to fling himself after.

Mario dusted off his bleeding hands, and, hand over hand, pulled himself back up the pipe.

Barroom Trick

Next to be brought down was Mario’s stocky assistant, Jan Buys. “Don’t look down!” Mario instructed. They descended the pipe to the cross-beam. But Jan’s legs were too short to span the gap to the platform, and he was too heavy to lift. Now what?In his army years, Mario had often performed an old barroom trick he learned from a book by Houdini. With shoulders on one chair and heels on another, he tensed his body into a bridge and challenged anyone to stand on his belly. It always won him a beer. Now he would do the same—but with a difference.

Standing on the cross-beam, he let himself fall forwards, his hands grabbing the end of the platform. Bracing himself by holding a piece of ironwork, he rolled to face upwards. With shoulders on the lip of the platform, heels on the beam and muscles locked, Mario became a human girder.

“Okay,” he told Jan, “come across on your hands and knees.”

“I can’t—you’ll never hold me.”

“Yes, I will. Believe in me.”

Trembling, Jan crouched and grabbed Mario around the knees. Slowly at first, then rushing, Jan scrambled across. Seeing the two men reach safety made the others more confident. Aaron Koetse came down the pipe sitting on Mario’s shoulders. Thabo Phatsoane, a tall, athletic 34-year-old, took his own weight on trembling arms while Mario guided his feet. With many hands reaching out from the platform, they had no trouble crossing the gap.


Mario had escorted 13 men to safety and climbed 16 times up and down a pipe that was slippery with blood from his hands. After two more trips, his arms trembled uncontrollably, and his shredded palms burned as though he were holding hot coals. But when he rested to catch his breath, the men in the tottering cage above pleaded, “Don’t stop!”

“God, give me the strength to save these last few,” Mario prayed. Still gasping, he focused all his will. His arms were charged with strength as he climbed and descended four more times, then went back for the last man—Rassie Erasmus.

Scared stiff, the elderly Rassie grabbed the pipe and forced himself to step on Mario’s shoulders. Bit by bit, they descended. Near the end, Mario’s grip slackened. For the first time, he slipped. But his boots struck the cross-beam, and they were saved.Now, as Mario again stretched his body across the void, Rassie watched in horror. How could he risk Mario’s life, and his own, by loading his 90 kg upon his friend’s exhausted body? Even with men reaching for him, it seemed impossible.

But then Rassie read the look of total certainty in Mario’s eyes. He took three brisk steps along Mario’s taut body. A score of hands reached out to seize him and he was over.

There were cheers and tears as Mario was helped up. Shaking, he poured a cup of tea from his thermos for Rassie, who was slumped against a wall. Then he phoned the surface:

“We’re all safe.” It was 10 p.m.

Minutes later, a group of mine managers and engineers arrived in another cage. One grabbed Mario’s hand for a hearty shake. Mario winced in agony. When he had punched through the alarm-box glass, he’d cracked a bone in his hand. It was after midnight when Mario climbed into bed beside Connie, careful not to wake her. Next morning, he cuddled his boys. Only when

Connie saw his raw, puffy hands did Mario confess there’d been some trouble at the mine. Six months later, Mario Cockrell was awarded the South African mining industry’s highest decoration for bravery. But no award speaks louder than the story miners tell, of the tough, quiet man who saved 20 lives, one by one, trip by trip, hand over broken hand.

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