Rescuers prepare to enter New Zealand mine
Published 19/11/2010 | 11:58
Rescue workers are preparing to enter the collapsed New Zealand coal mine where 27 miners are trapped after an explosion on Friday.
It is not known if the men are alive following the blast as communication with the mine floor was severed by the power of the explosion.
The 27 men who were in the mine at the time of the incident include miners and members of the mine's management, who were believed to be on a safety tour when the blast occurred.
Rescue workers including police, the fire service, helicopters and ambulances have converged on the Pike River Mine, located in remote and rugged mountains near the town of Atarau on New Zealand's South Island.
The teams were awaiting the all clear to enter the mine, but there were fears that a build-up of gas inside the vents could make the tunnels and shafts dangerous for rescuers and that ventilation within the mine could be malfunctioning due to a lack of power.
"Going into a mine after the power's been off for two or three hours requires mines' rescue people to make sure it's safe for them before they look for our people," John Dow, Pike River's chairman, said.
However, a police spokesman at the mine said they were "itching to get in there and start looking".
Meanwhile, the families of the trapped miners that had started to gather outside the Pike River Mine gates were being asked to move to a nearby hall where support and information would be provided.
Andrew Little, Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union national secretary. said it was an "incredibly anxious" time for the miners' families.
Robin Kingston, archdeacon of the Greymouth and Kumara Anglican Church, told the New Zealand Herald that there was "a significant amount of nervousness around at the moment."
"People have been asking for prayers for those they know who are not accounted for as yet," he said.
Tony Kokshoorn, mayor of nearby Greymouth, warned that it could take days before it was safe enough for the specialist rescue teams to enter the mine.
"It's an emotional time," he said.
However, Peter Whittall, the mine' chief executive, said that every miner was carrying breathing apparatus and oxygen and that they could be alive and waiting for rescuers in a place of safety.
"The men are between two and two and a half kilometres inside, but because the mine drills into the side of the mountain they are probably only 120 below the surface," he said.
"I personally know every employee of the company ... I know what the shift is and who the men are on that shift, and I'm still waiting to get a full list of the employees involved," he said.
Mr Whittall said five workers had walked out of the mine: a pair that included the machine operator who was blown off his vehicle one mile into the access tunnel. Three more came out later. One of the men had been able to make a call on his cell phone before reaching the surface, he said.
John Key, the prime minister, said that the situation was "serious".
"Our hearts and thoughts go out to them [affected families] at this time. It will be a very worrying time for them."
The mine, which only began shipping coal this year, is burrowing into a deposit which, according to one recent visitor, was relatively gaseous.
Two men had come out of the mine and were being treated in hospital for moderate injuries. They had told authorities that another three were making their way out.
The company produces hard coking coal used in the steel industry and has been hit by a series of technical problems, including rock falls, which delayed its development.
The last major coal mining disaster in New Zealand was in 1967 when 19 miners were killed in an explosion at a coal mine in the same part of the country, a major coal-producing region.
The coal seam is reached through a horizontal tunnel 1.4 miles in length that bores into a mountain toward the seam, which lies about 200 yards beneath the surface.
While the condition of the missing miners was not clear, the prospect that they could be alive but trapped recalls the dramatic saga of 33 Chilean mine workers who spent 69 days a half-mile deep in a collapsed gold and copper mine. They were rescued last month in an event played out on international television that captivated the world.