19/05/2017 07:50 SAST | Updated 19/05/2017 08:58 SAST

Four Brothers Among 40 Killed In Illegal Mining Explosion

Authorities are still retrieving bodies and it is unclear how many are still in the shaft.

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A restricted area warning sign sits on the site of old kimberlite rock tailings beside a water filled excavation pit at the Voorspoed diamond mine, operated by De Beers SA, in Kroonstad, South Africa, on Tuesday, May 3, 2017. The Anglo American Plc unit plans to store carbon-dioxide in kimberlite -- a type of ore best known for containing diamonds, but which also naturally reacts with carbon to remove it from the atmosphere. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Four brothers –- 28-year-old twins and their younger siblings -- are among the approximately 40 zama zamas who died in an explosion in a decommissioned Harmony Gold mine in Welkom in the Free State last Thursday, according to The Times on Friday.

The explosion was reportedly caused by a methane gas explosion that was apparently felt across the town, shaking buildings and windows.

The Times reported that many who died were instantly vaporised or burnt beyond recognition, while some of the bodies were identified by name tags on their bodies under clear sticky tape, which is a common practice among zama zamas, used to identify them in case an accident occurs.

One forensic services officer told The Times that the area was known as a "zama grave yard".

"Every week we collect bodies. The miners send a signal and we go out to collect the bodies. Most are beyond recognition. That's from the heat, crush injuries from rock falls or diseases."

The brothers were reportedly recruited into an illegal mining syndicate by friends whom they had witnessed making a lot of mining.

One Zimbabwean national who spoke to The Times, who's brother died in the explosion, said his sibling's body had been completely burnt.

"William told me he was scared. He was scared of the gas the most. He said you can't smell it. You just feel tired and then you go to sleep.

"His wife begged him not to go underground. She was scared. She didn't want him to go but he has two children -- who are four years and six months old -- to support."

It was suspected that the fire either started because of a fight between rival zama zama groups or a fire which was started to cook food.

Free state provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Leboana Tsumane told The Times that they had been using "conventional and unconventional" methods to retrieve bodies from the shaft since Monday.

The blast occurred thirteen kilometres away from the site underground.

Lauren Fourie, Harmony Gold spokesman told The Times: "The illegal miners that weren't affected by the blast took the bodies of those who were killed to Eland shaft. They then alerted security and security alerted police."

She said there was no way to confirm how many other bodies were still trapped underground.

"We rely on the information we receive from other illegal miners, who make it out safely," she said.