Zimbabwean authorities are expected to start retrieving trapped illegal gold miners on Friday but none are expected to have survived flooding in the shafts and the number of casualties could be about 50, state media reported.
The accident in Battlefields, 175 km west of Harare, has highlighted the safety issues in illegal gold miners, who in 2018 contributed significantly to the record bullion output of 33 tonnes in the southern African nation.
The miners have been trapped on Tuesday night when the shafts they were working in were flooded after a nearby dam burst.
Initial reports put the number at 23 but state media indicate there could be more than double that.
The Herald newspaper reported that some of the shafts were 100 meters deep and rescue teams from nearby mines and the Civil Protection Unit were pumping water from shafts and tunnels before recovering the estimated 50 men.
The Herald said the authorities did not expect to find survivors.
A spokesman for the Civil Protection Union, which is coordinating the rescue effort, had no immediate comment.
Eunica Zvitiki, a mother whose son was trapped in one of the pits said she did not think he would be found alive.
“From what I am seeing and the level of water I saw, there is little chance of that happening. I am preparing for the worst,” she told The Herald.
Battlefields and surrounding areas are rich in gold deposits and popular with artisanal miners, who use picks and shovels and generator-powered water pumps.
The makeshift shafts and tunnels can easily collapse in the rainy season when the ground is soft.
At abandoned mines, the miners, known locally as “Makorokoza” or hustlers, usually sneak in at night using torches and can disappear into shafts and tunnels for more than two days.
They sell their gold to central bank subsidiary Fidelity Printers and Refiners or private buyers.