By Chris Foley (AFP) – Nov 19, 2010
GREYMOUTH, New Zealand — Attempts to rescue 29 miners trapped by an explosion in a New Zealand mine continued to be delayed Saturday because of fears of another blast caused by a gas build up.
There has been no communication with the missing men since an explosion in the Pike River mine on Friday, but the owners continued to holdout hope the missing men were still alive.
Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said fresh air was being pumped into the mine and it was possible the miners had reached a safety refuge.
However, the ventilation system was not working at the mine located in an isolated area about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Greymouth on the South Island.
Search and rescue workers were gathered at the mine entrance preparing to enter when given the go ahead, and Whittall was hopeful they could go in late Saturday.
"They're assessing the ventilation of the mine and will determine at some stage during the day as to whether it's safe or not to enter and after which they will seek out and recover the employees who maybe trapped," he said.
"We are pumping fresh air into the mine somewhere so it's quite conceivable they are sitting around the end of an open pipe waiting and wondering why we are taking our time to get them out."
However, regional police commander Gary Knowles, who is overseeing the rescue attempt, said he would not risk the lives of his men before the all-clear was given.
"I'm not prepared to put crews down below ground until we can stabalise the environment and it's safe for them to go in," Knowles said, but added he was determined the men would be rescued.
"This is a search and rescue operation and we're going to bring these guys home."
Low cloud in the mine area was also hampering efforts to helicopter in special equipment flown in from Australia to test the level of gas coming out of the mine.
The missing miners range in age from a 17-year-old, believed to be on his first shift, to a 62-year-old and included at least two Australians and three British workers as well as New Zealanders.
They are about 2.5 kilometres into the mine tunnel although only about 150 metres (500 feet) from the surface.
Two miners who survived the explosion just before 4:00 pm Friday were being treated in hospital for minor injuries. They indicated three others were making their way out but they did not appear.
News of the explosion emerged on Friday after communication was lost with the miners and an electrician who went in the mine to check the problem found one worker lying on the ground.
He helped him to safety while the other known survivor made his own way out about 30 minutes later.
Whittall said the cause of the explosion was not known and the day shift in the mine had not reported any problems.
Families of the trapped miners were receiving hourly updates by the company and police.
Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the rescue was difficult and could take days.
But he said the experience of Chile's miners, who were successfully brought to the surface last month after surviving more than two months in a tunnel below the Atacama desert, was a source of inspiration.
"We are holding on to hope. Look at Chile, all those miners were trapped and they all came out alive," he told Fairfax Media Friday.
The mine, which began production last year, has a 2.4 kilometre (1.5 mile) access tunnel running beneath the Paparoa mountain range to the coal seam.
Police said the mine's remote location and the lack of power was complicating the rescue operation.
The South Island's west coast was the scene of the country's worst mine disaster in 1896, when an underground explosion killed 65 miners at the Brunner mine.
The mine involved in Friday's explosion is close to the site of another disaster in 1968, when a blast killed 19 people.
Pike River is jointly owned by New Zealand Oil & Gas and two Indian companies -- Gujarat NRE Coke and Saurashtra Fuels Private Ltd.
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