Heartbreak for miners' families as hope ends with 'cruellest of news'
FIRST came hope, with revelations that a safety helmet had been found with its light still on and that rescuers were finally poised to enter the Pike River coal mine.
Then came "the cruellest of news" -- there had been a second underground explosion, this one so powerful that none of the 29 men trapped below could have survived.
Some family members collapsed when the news was delivered yesterday; others screamed and railed at police. After five days of uncertainty and anguish, the human tragedy unfolding in an isolated corner of New Zealand's South Island had reached a dramatic and grim conclusion.
The second blast, thought to have been caused by a build-up of toxic gases in the mine's network of tunnels, plunged the country into national mourning. For the town of Greymouth, on the west coast and home to many of the men, it was "our darkest hour", said the mayor of the Grey District, Tony Kokshoorn. Two Britons are entombed in the mine: Pete Rodger (40) from Perthshire, Scotland, who moved to New Zealand two years ago to be near to his mother and sister, and Malcolm Campbell (25) from St Andrews, Scotland, who was due to marry his fiancee, Amanda Shields, next month.
During the agonising wait, families clung to hope, buoyed by the survival stories of Chile's 33 buried miners. But this time there was no happy ending, just excruciating grief. Pike River's owner Peter Whittall was close to tears as he broke the news. He knew every one of the 29 men personally, he said.
Compounding the families' pain is the fact they will never know whether the miners -- who ranged from a 17-year-old on his first shift to a 62-year-old -- survived the first explosion last Friday. Yesterday, some family members vented their anger at what they saw as a botched rescue operation.
Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is among the dead, said rescuers should have gone into the mine last Friday, when -- he believed -- the initial explosion would have burned off most of the gases. But Mr Whittall said the second blast demonstrated that authorities had acted correctly in refusing to allow rescue teams to enter.
However, questions are being asked about safety at the mine, which opened in 2008, and about the wisdom of mining a coal deposit known to be gaseous. The Prime Minister, John Key, announced a commission of inquiry to investigate the country's worst mining disaster since 1914. (© Independent News Service)