Mine rescue held up by fear of new blast
Mining chief says men may be alive but others fear worst
Published 21/11/2010 | 05:00
THEY are a hardy type in Ataura. As might be expected of those living in a town on the remote west coast of New Zealand's South Island, the locals pride themselves on their resilience and ability to cope with adversity.
But as they waited to learn the fate of 29 men who have not been heard of since Friday last when an explosion ripped through the Pike River mine, many in the close-knit community were fearing the worst.
The local mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, has briefed the families of the missing men. He said they were "grief-stricken" by a disaster that has touched the entire community. "There's a little bit of anger, there's a little bit of despair," Mr Kokshoorn said. "There's tension building all around. People aren't talking about the worst, but I can see it on their faces. One of my councillors, he's down there [in the mine]," Mr Kokshoorn said.
"There was a young guy that just got the rugby league player of the region last week; he's down there. There's a local publican, real popular fellow; his son's down there. There's a woman I talked to; her husband's down there, they've got five young kids. It's just devastating."
Local police have insisted that they "remain positive" the men will be found alive. But so far they have been unable to send in rescuers because the area has not been declared safe.
A local union representative, Trevor Bolderson, warned the chances of a second blast were high. "Gas samples taken at the mine are turning the wrong way and we are expecting that the second explosion may be forthcoming," he said. "At the moment the rescue guys can't get into the mine because of this."
New Zealand's prime minister, John Key, said his government was "doing what we can to make sure these 29 brave men are taken out of the mine in one piece".
News of the disaster, which is likely to have been caused by methane gas, emerged when two injured miners stumbled to the surface hours after a blast shot up the mine's 108-metre ventilation shaft. But since then Peter Whittall, chief executive of Pike River Coal, said nothing had been heard from the missing 16 employees and 13 contract miners.
Only one underground communications link is working, an emergency phone that rescuers have been calling constantly without success.
"It's quite conceivable that there is a large number of men sitting around the end of the open [ventilation] pipe, waiting and wondering why we are taking our time to get to them," Mr Whittall said.
Mr Whittall said it would be easier to make a rescue attempt at Pike River than it had been in Chile. The colliery's main shaft is a horizontal tunnel, enabling easy access by foot or heavy vehicle.
Prof Dennis Buchanan, a mining expert at Imperial College London, said coal mines in China, Ukraine and Russia had unenviable accident records, but New Zealand was seen as a world leader in mining safety. "What's really surprising is this is a very modern mine in a country which has very, very stringent enforcement of all regulations."