No progress on rescue for 29 trapped in mine

Saturday, November 20, 2010

WELLINGTON - Three days after a gas explosion trapped 29 men in a New Zealand coal mine, officials said Sunday it was still too dangerous to send rescuers underground to look for them.

“If we send people underground we could lose lives, and I’m not prepared to do that,” police superintendent Gary Knowles told a news conference after briefing tearful family members who attended prayer vigils Saturday night.

“We are still focusing on a rescue operation,” he said. “We are still remaining positive.”

The Reverend Robin Kingston urged a packed congregation in Greymouth’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church to keep their hopes up, but warned that they needed to brace for the worst.

“The hardest thing is not knowing whether they are dead or alive,” one tearful man told a Sunday Star Times reporter as he left the church.

Nothing has been heard from the missing men since a Friday afternoon explosion rocked the Pike River coal mine, 50 km from Greymouth, on the west coast of the South Island.

Two men who were underground at the time escaped and said three others were following them out, but they did not emerge at the surface.

Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall told Sunday morning’s news conference that test samples revealing heat underground “show that something is happening underground, the extent of which we don’t know - there is minor combustion of some sort.”

He said the latest tests Saturday night showed that dangerous gases were decreasing, but it was still not safe for a rescue team of 16 miners, awaiting the all clear to go in and look for their colleagues, to enter the mine.

With relatives of the missing men reported to be increasingly distraught as the days pass, Whittall said representatives would be taken on buses to the mine to meet the rescue party and be briefed on their preparations.

“Everything humanly possible is being done,” Knowles told reporters.

Whittall said fresh air was still being pumped into the mine, and a new hole would be drilled to take more air samples, but it could take up to 24 hours.

Responding to published criticism about safety procedures at the mine, Whittall said it had been established “on best practices of risk management”.

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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