Hopes for survival of trapped New Zealand miners fading

Monday, November 22, 2010

WELLINGTON - The bid to rescue 29 men trapped underground in a New Zealand coal mine five days ago struck problems Tuesday amid growing fears that they may no longer be alive.

An army robot with cameras sent into the mine’s access tunnel broke down after only 500 metres, and drillers making a borehole to allow a camera and listening device to be lowered had to stop work after hitting unexpectedly hard rock.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall told a news conference that drilling had resumed, but it would take another five hours to bore the last 20 metres of the 162-metre deep, 15-cm-wide hole.

Police Chief Gary Knowles told reporters that while it remained a rescue operation, hopes for survival of the men were fading.

“With the passage of time, we are preparing for all options,” he said. “If one of those options means that those guys underground are no longer alive, we are planning for that as well.”

Nothing has been heard from the men since an explosion rocked the Pike River mine Friday on the west coast of the South Island.

Rescue parties of fellow miners have been on standby throughout, but police said the risk of another explosion made it too dangerous to let them go in.

Trevor Watts, general manager of the New Zealand Mines Rescue organization, told reporters: “We are still in a phase of rescue.”

He said a total of 65 miners were standing by on rescue teams, backed by a 30-member logistical support party, and it was “heart-wrenching” that they could not go in because expert analysis of air samples from the mine showed the risk of another explosion was too great.

Whittall said family members who were briefed on the situation before the news conference were “extremely frustrated and really struggling”.

He said the missing men were believed to be in three or four groups in the mine at the time of the explosion, from which two escaped, and plans were being made to drill another hole to allow soundings after the first one is through.

Knowles told Radio New Zealand Tuesday that the expected release of gas once the drill broke through the surface would be tested immediately, and a camera, microphone and laser device capable of mapping the area would be lowered.

He said efforts were being made to get more robots flown to New Zealand from Australia and the US.

Names of the missing men were released by police for the first time Monday.

They include Joseph Dunbar, who was on his first shift down the mine, one day after celebrating his 17th birthday. He was not supposed to start work until Monday but was so enthusiastic about his first job that he convinced his boss to let him begin early.

The oldest is 62-year-old Keith Thomas Valli.

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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