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Families weep in tribute to gas-blast miners

A national remembrance service has been held in New Zealand for the coal miners killed in an explosion last month, with a line of 29 black-draped tables each bearing a fallen miner's helmet, lamp and name serving as the centrepiece.

Pike River mine was rocked by an explosion on November 19, trapping the 29 miners.

A second major blast five days later dashed hopes that any of the workers had survived, and the men's bodies have still not been recovered. Two Britons were among the dead.

Two more explosions have occurred since, including one on Sunday that shot flames into the air, signalling a raging underground coal fire that continues to burn.

More than 10,000 mourners attended the sombre open-air service for the dead miners under a sunny sky today at Greymouth's Omoto Racecourse on South Island.

People paused for a two-minute silence before the service to remember the dead men. Flags flew at half-staff on government buildings nationwide.


Victims' families placed photos, tributes and personal items -- including clothing, a rugby ball, surfboards, a guitar and a cricket bat -- alongside the miners' helmets on the tables.

Men, women and children, many weeping, filed quietly past the tables to pay their respects.

"In a very real sense, those men are with us because of those tables," Reverend Tim Mora, who led the service, told the silent crowd.

Grieving father Lawrie Drew said he would not feel a sense of closure until his son Zen's body was recovered.

Prime minister John Key said the nation's four million people were standing behind the region's tight-knit community.

"We hoped ... they'd emerge from the depths of the Earth," he told the mourners. "But they never came home."

Recovery teams have started a jet engine known as the "gag" machine, blowing inert gases and water vapour into the burning mine to quench the fire raging since Sunday.

Police Supt Gary Knowles told reporters once the explosive gases are expelled, work will begin to cool soaring temperatures inside the mine to allow for the recovery of the 29 bodies.