State Emergency Services volunteer James Abel being lowered in a sling. Photo: NSW Department of Primary IndustriesA 30-centimetre-wide hole at the bottom of a disused mine shaft is believed to have saved the life of a woman missing for two days 18 metres below the ground in a remote opal town in the NSW far north-west.
Nanjing Night Net

Donna Synnerdahal, 47, plummeted down the mine shaft as she was walking home from a friend’s mineral claim on Nebia Hill, an opal field just west of the Lightning Ridge town centre, on Saturday evening.

She was rescued last night after a three-hour search and is in a serious condition in Dubbo Base Hospital, recovering from spinal and head injuries, as well as bad cuts all over her body.

State Emergency Services volunteer James Abel being lowered in a sling.

State Emergency Services volunteer James Abel being lowered in a sling. Photo: NSW Department of Primary Industries

While police and paramedics say it’s remarkable Ms Synnerdahal survived the fall onto the shaft’s rocky bottom, the man who rescued her believes it was a narrow horizontal drive space that saved her life.

“I think that when she’s hit the bottom of the hole the impact’s been taken away [because] she’s sort of hit [the ground] on a bit of an angle and slid down into [the drive] so it hasn’t been a sudden sort of a stop,” State Emergency Services volunteer James Abel said.

“That’s only an opinion but I think that’s what saved her life in all honesty.”

Police say Ms Synnerdahal’s ordeal began after 5pm on Saturday, when she was last seen leaving a friend’s mineral claim.

Her recollections were hazy but she told police and Mr Abel she had been walking with her dog and somehow fell into one of the hundreds of old mine shafts littering the opal field.

The shaft is a couple of metres off a mine access road used by residents who live on the field and for two days Ms Synnerdahal heard cars driving past, oblivious to her plight.

“She just thought it was all over for her because she could hear all these vehicles passing by,” Mr Abel said.

“She said ‘Oh I didn’t know if anybody would know [I was gone]’ and I said ‘Well obviously someone up there cares enough for someone to have come looking for you.'”

In fact, friends reported Ms Synnerdahal missing later on Saturday night after she did not arrive home.

Walgett police commander Chief Inspector Bob Noble said officers found Ms Synnerdahal’s home intact with no sign of anything suspicious having happened.

Police waited for 72 hours before calling in the SES and starting a search between Ms Synnerdahal’s mineral claim and the friend’s claim where she was last seen.

“We did a scope up through this pretty thick vegetation. We checked a couple of abandoned mine holes along the way,” Mr Abel said.

“As we approached the top of the hill … there was three or four of us there who heard the noise at the same time and we heard a yell from the bottom of the hole – she must have heard our voices from the top.

“At that stage we couldn’t see how far down she was or how deep the hole was because the edge of the hole was fairly exposed and quite dangerous.”

Mr Abel, deputy regional controller, ran to get rescue equipment while a female police officer stayed to reassure Ms Synnerdahal.

“She was saying ‘I’m here is anyone there, don’t go, don’t go,'” he said.

The 36-year-old, who works as a computerised mapping co-ordinator for Walgett Shire Council, was the first one lowered down into the mine shaft.

“That was the first visual I had with her and I had a torch. It was quite dark down there because it was just a direct [one metre] vertical shaft that goes straight down,” Mr Abel said.

“You can’t even stretch your arms out either side of you it’s so confined.”

Ms Synnerdahal was sitting on the bottom of the mine shaft with her legs stretched out into the drive.

“It was only about a [30-centimetre] gap and she had her legs in there so she was able to stretch slightly,” he said.

A paramedic was hoisted down a short time later and, after giving Ms Synnerdahal water and first aid, she was strapped into a brace and pulled up out of the shaft ‘attached’ to Mr Abel, shaken but relieved.

“She was quite embarrassed about her predicament but I said ‘don’t worry’,” he said.

“She was quite calm, she was an amazing woman with what she went through. It just blows me away I tell you.”

The NSW Department of Primary Industries is investigating the accident.

– with The Ridge News