Rescue teams brought the first 150 miners out of 3,200 trapped deep underground in a South African gold mine to the surface early on Thursday, mine and union officials said.

Mine owner Harmony Gold is confident all the miners will be lifted to the surface in a small elevator at the Elandsrand mine near Carletonville, southwest of Johannesburg, Chief Executive Officer Graham Briggs told Reuters.

"There have been no injuries or deaths ... It may take as long as 10 hours, the cage (lift) is traveling fairly slowly to avoid risks ... I'm very confident all will come out," Briggs said.

The first miners emerged at around 2330 GMT, after being trapped 2.2 km (1.4 miles) underground for over 15 hours. Between 150 and 200 women miners were among the workers.

"They look exhausted and very, very relieved," the SAPA news agency quoted National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Peter Bailey as saying.

Another union spokesman said earlier that the miners were trapped in a cramped space where temperatures could reach 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86-104 Fahrenheit).

Briggs said production at the mine had been halted and would remain shut down until an investigation had been carried out and the damage repaired.

The miners were caught after a power cable to a lift broke at around 0800 GMT on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Harmony -- the world's fifth biggest gold producer -- said earlier.

There were varying reports on what exactly caused the accident.

SAPA quoted Soares saying a 15 meter (50 foot) section of a compressed pipe column broke just below the shaft surface bank and fell to the bottom of the shaft used to carry men and materials.


Briggs said rescuers were in contact with the trapped miners and clean air and water were being pumped down to them. "It's a very serious incident, but it's under control," he added.

South African gold mines are the deepest in the world and unions have often criticized companies for not doing enough to ensure workers' safety.

Gold mine operations have come under scrutiny over the past few months following a series of accidents as gold producers mine ever deeper to offset lower production and reap the benefits of a sharply higher bullion price.

Gold output in South Africa, the world's biggest gold producer, has tumbled by over 50 percent over the past decade, as high-grade mines run out of ore and firms grapple with more difficult and high-cost underground operations.

The government briefly closed an AngloGold Ashanti mine in July after two miners were killed in a rock fall.

Harmony bought the Elandsrand mine and nearby Deelkraal operations from rival AngloGold Ashanti in 2001. At the time production was declining and Harmony saw potential in digging a new mine underneath the old one.

Harmony, which employs around 44,000 people and produced 2.4 million ounces of gold in 2006, expects to complete the new Elandsrand mine by 2011 and to mine it for a further 18 years.