Rescue efforts at New Zealand mine face further delay

By Gyles Beckford

GREYMOUTH, New Zealand (BestGrowthStock) – Efforts to rescue 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine faced more agonizing delays on Sunday when authorities said they would drill a new shaft to test air quality because toxic gases made it too dangerous for rescue teams go in.

There has been no contact with the miners since an explosion ripped through the colliery on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island on Friday afternoon, with authorities saying they would not enter until the air quality improved.

“It’s not a case of simply pulling on a mask and running in there, the risk is huge,” district police commander Gary Knowles said.

“I’m not going to put 16 guys underground to effect a half-arsed rescue.”

An explosion of naturally occurring methane gas is thought to have caused the explosion. High levels of gas have been detected near mine ventilation shafts, but rescue teams need to know gas levels through the rest of the mine before finally entering.

Authorities remained positive they would find the miners alive, despite the presence of gas and the prospect of a further delay from drilling the new shaft.

“This is still primarily a rescue operation,” Knowles said.

Tests on Saturday indicated the presence of a heat source which is generating gas, perhaps a fire or coal smouldering, said the Pike River mine’s chief executive, Peter Whittall.

“The increased gas levels are making it difficult,” he said, adding that a smoky vapor was coming out of the mine entrance.

Whittall said the new, narrow hole will be drilled from the surface to a depth of up to 150 meters (490 ft) to enable additional air tests to be completed, and all going well could be completed by late Sunday evening but could take as long as 24 hours.

TRAUMATIC WAIT

The tests conducted from the mine’s shafts on Saturday showed the levels of gas were only slowly abating.

It has been a traumatic wait on the surface for family and friends of the trapped men, who range in age from 17 to 62 and include two Britons, two Australians and a South African.

Grim-faced family and friends of the missing miners were briefed early morning on the latest developments and then taken to the mine site to see at first hand the rescue preparations.

The mountains in which the mine is situated were still shrouded in low cloud and occasional misty rain.

The disaster follows the ordeal of 33 Chilean miners trapped in an underground chamber for two months before their dramatic rescue last month, when they were hoisted one by one to safety through a hole drilled 700 meters through rock.

The mayor of the Grey district said everyone was clinging to hopes that the miners would walk out of the mine, but they were also realistic and knew that time was not on their side.

“Every day we don’t hear a voice from that mine it becomes desperate,” Tony Kokshoorn said.

The isolated mine has been dug about 2.3 km (1.4 miles) horizontally into a mountain range, with the trapped men believed to be most of the way inside. There are some ventilation shafts climbing vertically at least 100 meters to the surface to provide fresh air.

Whittall has said it is possible that all the trapped miners are safe and awaiting rescue near one of the ventilation shafts, although if they had been calling out near a shaft they would have been heard. The men have access to water, the temperature in the mine is roughly 25 degrees celsius, and some fresh air is still being pumped into the mine.

The explosion is believed to have occurred about 1.5 km along the main mine shaft, and Whittall said it was likely that all the miners would have been working within 200 meters of each other. Rescue teams are on standby at the site and once the decision is made to enter the mine, the operation is expected to be quick, given the small search area in the two year-old mine.

(Writing by Adrian Bathgate; Editing by Ed Davies)

Rescue efforts at New Zealand mine face further delay