Rescuers now fearing the worst for trapped miners
RESCUERS were last night close to finishing drilling a shaft into the mine where 29 workers have been trapped for four days, as New Zealand authorities admitted for the first time that the men may be dead.
Adding to the anguish of relatives, reports circulated of a dangerous build-up of methane gas at the Pike River coal mine, on the South Island's remote west coast, three weeks before last Friday's explosion. It also emerged that no emergency food or water supplies were stored at the mine.
Peter Whittall, Pike River Coal's chief executive, struggled to contain his emotions as he read out the names of the 29 miners at a press conference in Greymouth.
As well as Peter Rodger and Malcolm Campbell, both from Scotland, the group includes a 17-year-old New Zealander, Joseph Dunbar, who was due to start work this week but had persuaded mine managers to allow him a foretaste of life underground. His mother, Pip Timms, said he was "grinning from ear to ear" when a relative dropped him at the mine on Friday.
Police -- hitherto resolutely upbeat -- tempered their optimism yesterday. Superintendent Gary Knowles, head of the operation, said: "We're planning for the possible loss of life as a result of what's occurred underground."
Nonetheless, hopes focused on the 500ft-long shaft down which officials planned to lower listening devices and air testing equipment. They also hoped to send down a military robot, armed with a camera enabling it to record video of conditions in the mine tunnel.
However, the robot can only operate in fresh air, and gases are still being detected underground. Fears of a second explosion have further delayed the rescue operation, with teams still waiting for the mine to be declared safe.
Nothing has been heard from the 29 men since a blast sent a fireball racing through the mine. Two other workers walked out later that day, but they were only part-way into the tunnel, some distance from the others. Experts said it was possible that the latter might have found a pocket of clean air, and New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, refused to give up hope, saying there was "every chance" they were still alive.
Mr Whittall rejected a report that the mine was flooded with methane gas three weeks ago. But the Greymouth mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, said that concerns had been aired about methane levels for some time. (© Independent News Service)