Hope is fading in South Africa for the family of a five-year-old boy who fell into a disused mineshaft, after a number of failed rescue attempts.
Richard Thole was playing next to his family’s shack near Johannesburg when the ground gave in last Saturday.
His mother, Nombeko Thole, has said: “It hurts, I think my child is dead. I just want him back dead or alive.”
Johannesburg is dotted with disused mines following the 19th Century gold rush which led to the city’s founding.
The army has been requested to help find the boy.
Rescue efforts have been slow because of the volatility of the ground and the acid mine water inside the shaft, officials have said.
Mzwandile Masina, mayor of the local Ekurhuleni district, says there is only 11% oxygen in the shaft, making it almost impossible for the boy to still be alive.
He has told the family to “prepare for the worst”.
Nombeko Thole and Meshack Mohlala are giving up hope of their son being rescued alive
The mayor is also worried about “losing more life” in the process of the search after a member of the rescue team became unconscious after descending into the shaft.
A specialised camera was lowered into the shaft and three other mines on Wednesday but there was no sign of the boy.
Large crowds have been watching the rescue efforts over the last few days
The residents of the informal settlement, known as Jerusalem, now want the government to relocate them, saying they fear for their safety.
It is built on private land, once home to an active mine that has been sealed since the 1950s.
The many mines around Johannesburg are often left derelict when the reserves dry up, barely closed off.
Living space is a contentious issue here and so such land attracts migrant workers looking for cheap accommodation.
The disused mines are rarely monitored so communities grow largely undetected – often only being discovered in the event of a tragedy such as this one.
The local government involved in this specific rescue mission has said overseeing the sealing of mines is outside its scope, that it’s a matter for the Department of Mineral Resources.
The owners have yet to be located – many are asking questions about whether lessons will be learned from this horrific incident.
For Richard Thole’s family, it’s a lesson that may come at too high a cost.
Local people who support themselves by illegally mining for gold, and who know the network of shafts well, have offered to go underground to look for the boy but the authorities have said that was not an option.
“We cannot allow just anyone to go in there considering their safety aspect,” emergency services spokesman William Ntladi said.
“There’s been massive rock fall and I can confirm there were no illegal activities taking place at this shaft before the incident occurred.”