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The word at New Zealand mine: 'There's always hope'

The small nation is focused on the fate of 29 miners trapped since Friday in a coal mine on the South Island's west coast. Rescuers are unable to proceed for fear of further explosions.

November 21, 2010|By Tami Abdollah, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Greymouth, New Zealand — Just a month after 33 miners were rescued in Chile, New Zealanders remained focused Sunday on the fate of 29 miners trapped underground after an apparent gas explosion in a South Island coal mine.

Nothing has been heard from the men, who were deep in the Pike River mine Friday afternoon when a massive blast ripped through it. Calls to a phone line at the bottom of the mine have gone unanswered.

The miners — ages 17 to 62 and including two Australians, two Britons and a South African — are believed to be about 1.2 miles down the main shaft.

To the frustration of the miners' anguished relatives, rescue teams have been held back by a possible buildup of poisonous gases in the shaft that could result in another explosion.

Rescue officials had begun constructing a drill Sunday to bore a hole into the hillside and take deeper gas samples. Fresh air is being pumped into the shaft and 30 rescuers remained on standby to enter the mine if gas levels were determined to be safe.

Two men who were close to the mine's entrance were able to emerge after the blast Friday with minor injuries. They were discharged from the hospital Saturday.

"This is a very big event for a small country that is close-knit," said lawmaker Damien O'Connor. "There will not be many communities in this country that are not affected."

Officials said Sunday that they were hopeful the men were alive.

"The primary focus today is still a rescue operation," Police Supt. Gary Knowles told reporters in the nearby town of Greymouth. "But it is still not safe to effect a rescue. When it's possible, we will go underground."

With about 4.2 million people, New Zealand's population is less than half that of Los Angeles. Greymouth is the largest city on the South Island's west coast, with about 10,000 people who have strong ties to mining.

Shows of support have come from multiple countries, with Australia sending a team of rescuers and special equipment.

"We have got more equipment than we know what to do with at the moment," said Trevor Watts, general manager of New Zealand Mines Rescue. "We are suitably equipped to deal with any event over the coming days."

With this accident coming soon after the rescue last month of 33 miners trapped 69 days in a gold and copper mine in Chile, the community in Greymouth has rallied around the rescue effort.

"The mining community throughout the world is close," O'Connor said. "Everyone in this region was watching closely what was happening in Chile, and celebrated with everyone. There are real possibilities that there could be a positive outcome" here.

But because the Pike River facility is a coal mine, officials need to worry about methane, which is highly volatile.

The cause of the explosion is still under investigation, but Peter Whittall, chief executive of Pike River Mine Ltd, said it was probably caused by ignition of coal gas.

Officials have blocked off access to the mine, which is about 50 miles northeast of Greymouth.

The city has been swamped as hundreds of journalists from around the world have streamed in.

An afternoon news briefing saw about 100 journalists, along with members of Parliament and the military, crammed into a small room at the Greymouth police station. Local officials have been overwhelmed as they try to field calls and interviews in a town with only a few main streets and one major supermarket.

Miners' family members and the majority of the community hunkered down amid the frenzy, reluctant to talk about the rescue operation. Those who did expressed anxiety and impatience.

"If I had my way, I'd be down there. I'd go into the mine myself," said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is one of the missing men.

As he spoke to TV One, Drew wore his son's jacket.

"I wore it so I can give it back to him when he comes out," he said, choking back tears. "I just want my boy home."

Garth Elliott, 48, was a miner for 20 years and lives in Blackball, a mining town about 13 miles east of Greymouth.

He learned about the explosion Friday when the owner of the local pub met him halfway down the road as Elliott was on his way for a beer after work.

"He said there's been an explosion the Pike River mine, and I couldn't believe it at first. … Then the media began," said Elliott, the local organizer for the miners union.

He said families were still in shock and were anxious, but they were supporting one another and staying positive.

"That's the mining spirit," he said. "We're close people, we work in close proximity and we're a close-knit community.... There's always hope here."

Abdollah is a special correspondent. Times wire services were used in compiling this report.

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