The rescue operation being undertaken at Beaconsfield is probably unprecedented, says the former member of occupational health and safety management at Tasmania’s Renison Bell Tin Mine.

The combination of depth, the amount of solid rock to be drilled through and a mish-mash of rubble were unique problems, Bob Cohen said yesterday. “In ten years in the mining industry I can’t recall a situation quite like this, unfortunately mining accidents world-wide are fairly common but this situation hasn’t eventuated before.”

Mr Cohen also believes steel reinforcing may have saved the miners’ lives. “It appears they were rock bolting when the accident happened. This involves drilling holes up to 6m long and bolting in to the rock to reinforce the tunnel’s roof. This is an everyday part of mining but obviously something went very wrong.”

“In usual circumstances, no-one would have survived a cave in that far underground, the steel reinforcing above them would technically have saved their lives. If it wasn’t in place the sheer velocity and amount of rocks that fell would no doubt have crushed their cage”.

“It is impossible to speak to someone who would absolutely know what to do as this level of ‘rescue’ has never been done before. The rescuers would be drilling through rock one minute and then an open cavern would appear.”

“Sensors would have indicated which way to go but playing pick-up-sticks with two lives is something none of us would ever want to have to do. Make no mistake, these guys were never lost, the mine would have very accurate sensors and known exactly where they were. The only thing they wouldn’t have known was whether they were alive or not.”

Mr Cohen has his own theory as to why Larry Knight didn’t survive the cave in. “Put simply, the three miners were in a vehicle, somewhat like a cherry-picker, they look like a big Tonka Toy. It was lamentable that Larry Knight would have been driving the vehicle and not in a solid cage.”

“However Todd Russell and Brant Webb were in a cage, the steel and rocks that fell on them 1km down would have fallen very much like a house-of-cards, an uneven and chaotic mess. Now the whole thing is buried under a pile of rubble with these guys stuck in the middle.”

“After the cave-in the miners may have been able to open the gate on the cage but being uncertain about the possibility of another rock fall, would have chosen not to. The cage has withstood the pressure until now, but how the hell they are going to do this, is really unknown.”

“All that is sure is that these men will be head-hunted the world over by mining companies if they succeed after an experience like this.”