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Desperate Australians wrote goodbyes

Published May 22, 2006

CANBERRA, Australia - The two Australian miners trapped underground for two weeks said Sunday in their first interview that they wrote farewell messages to their families on their own skin in case they died.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, were close to tears as they described moments of desperation in a paid four-hour interview with Australian television's Nine Network.

"I just thought I was a caged rat, you know, 'Get me out of here,' " Webb said.

In lighter moments, they said they sang the Kenny Rogers tune The Gambler to pass the time, just because they both knew the words.

A minor earthquake collapsed the shaft where the pair were working in the century-old Beaconsfield Gold Mine in Tasmania state on April 25, injuring their spines and joints and trapping them 3,000 feet underground beneath tons of rock in the confines of a tiny steel safety cage.

Miner Larry Knight was killed in the collapse, and the surviving pair said they had yet to come to terms with the loss.

Both men said their legs were initially pinned under rubble and they had discussed amputating the limbs with box cutters if necessary to survive.

Webb spent hours digging Russell free from the rubble that pinned his left leg after the rock fall.

"I shut my eyes and I just imagined ... the picture of my wife and three children, and I said to myself, 'I'm not dying here,' " Russell said. "I've had a few blues (fights) in my life, but I've never fought that hard."

The two were finally rescued by miners who tunneled through solid rock to reach them in a feat that entranced the nation.

"I'd written letters on my arms to my wife and family and ... because of the sweat and the wet that we were getting from the water, it had actually washed off," Russell said.

"The hardest part of the ordeal, I think, was writing ... letters to the loved ones at home," he said.

Five days after the collapse, rescuers who blasted their way into the shaft discovered that the pair had survived when they heard them singing the song.

Russell said he had used humor to calm Webb.

"I said, 'Look, mate, if you don't settle down, I'm going to have to give you a kiss,' " Russell said. He used that tactic four times and Webb always became quiet.

The men said they both had injuries but managed to walk out of the mine without assistance.

"We've both held up pretty well," Webb said. "We thought we'd hit a point where we'd flatten off and go down a bit ... but we haven't."

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 08:00:00]

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