Fate of New Zealand’s 29 trapped miners still unclear

Saturday, November 20, 2010

WELLINGTON - Families of 29 men trapped underground after an explosion in a New Zealand coal mine faced a second sleepless night Saturday as rescuers continued to wait for the all-clear to go in and look for them.

Police superintendent Gary Knowles told Television New Zealand that air samples taken from the mine 24 hours after the methane gas explosion showed it was still not safe to begin search efforts.

There has been no contact with the men - who are believed to be about 120 metres underground - since the explosion at the Pike River Coal mine, 50 km north of Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island, Friday afternoon.

Company chief executive Peter Whittall said calls made repeatedly throughout the day to a telephone in the mine went unanswered. The cause of the methane gas explosion remains unknown.

Worries are growing because power and ventilation to the mine were interrupted after Friday’s explosion.

Knowles said a rescue party of 16 experienced miners was ready to search as soon as it was confirmed that there was no risk of another explosion or fire. Police sources told BBC that they are positive that they will find the miners alive.

Police confirmed the nationalities of the trapped workers as 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two British citizens and one South African. Whittall said 16 were Pike River employees and the others contractors working on assignments.

The only known survivors were loader driver Daniel Lockhouse, 24, who was knocked off his machine in the 2.5-km tunnel leading to the coal face by the blast, and mine electrician Russell Smith, 50, who found him when investigating a power cut.

The pair, who were in a different part of the mine from where the missing men were working, managed to escape and were released from hospital Saturday after being treated for moderate injuries.

Special equipment to analyse air quality taken from the top of a ventilation shaft was flown in from Australia Saturday morning, but Whittall said early tests were inconclusive.

He said fresh air was being pumped in through the damaged ventilation shaft, but it was not known whether the missing men survived Friday’s blast or what condition they were in.

Later reports said levels of methane, ethane and carbon monoxide were too high to contemplate a rescue bid.

“If there’s a window of opportunity to get safely into the mine, then that will happen,” Knowles said. “They are ready to go at any time. They want to save their colleagues.”

Mine officials have said all the workers were carrying extra oxygen tanks and emergency supplies that should make it possible to renew oxygen supplies. Whittall also told BBC that there is water in the mine and that temperatures are around 25 degrees Celsius.

Whittall said it was a tunnel mine, not a shaft pit, which meant the rescue party would not have to descend to great depths like the 33 Chilean miners rescued recently after 69 days underground.

Local mayor Tony Kokshoorn said scenes at briefings held for relatives at a Red Cross hall in Greymouth were heart-wrenching.

“You wouldn’t believe the grief that’s there,” he said. “The whole town has come to a standstill. We are just trying to work it through. I can’t stress to you how emotional this is.”

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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