Gas danger delays rescue mission for 29 missing miners

Tom Lawrence

FEARS were growing today for 29 men trapped deep underground after a gas explosion in a New Zealand coal mine.

The miners were entombed after a powerful blast struck at the Pike River Coal Mine in Atarau yesterday.

A mission to locate the workers was hampered today by fears that dangerous gas could trigger a second explosion. It is not known if the men are alive or dead.

Two injured miners stumbled to the surface hours after the blast shot up the 354ft (108m) ventilation shaft at the mine yesterday.

Pike River Mine's chief executive, Peter Whittall, said nothing had been heard from the 16 employees and 13 contract miners since the blast and repeated attempts to contact the 29 men had failed.

"We can't risk sending men into the mine until we know exactly what (the quality of the gas) is," he said.

A coal-gas explosion was the most likely cause of the major blast, Mr Whittall said.

Messages of support and offers of assistance were last night flooding in from all across the world.

Mr Whittall said officials would have enough information later today to decide whether a rescue team can go in, adding that the missing miners would have to deal with such hazards as air pollution, high levels of methane and carbon dioxide, and low levels of oxygen.

It could be days before it is safe for special teams to enter the mine, said Tony Kokshoorn, mayor of nearby Greymouth.

Electricity went out shortly before the blast and it is feared the power cut may have caused ventilation problems and contributed to a build-up of gas.

Mr Whittall said without accurate gas samples they could not risk sending rescuers in until they had definitive tests.

Families of the missing men and the local community is "grief-stricken" over the news.

Union representative Trevor Bolderson said three Britons were among the trapped men -- one from Scotland and two from Yorkshire.

In New Zealand's worst mine disaster in 1967, a blast in the nearby Strongman Mine killed 19 workers.