‘Gag unit’ to try to make NZ death mine safe

2010-11-26 07:16

Greymouth, New Zealand – A specialist machine arrived in New Zealand today to aid the grim task of reaching the bodies of 29 men killed in the nation’s worst mining disaster for almost a century.

Authorities hope it will speed up the recovery of corpses from the Pike River mine, which remains flooded with toxic gases following a tragedy that plunged New Zealand into mourning.

The Australian device, known as a “gag unit”, would use water vapour and gases to purge oxygen from the mine and ensure there would be no repeat of the two explosions that rocked it over the past week, the machine’s operators said.

“It displaces explosive gases or methane gases, extinguishes any fires and suppresses any sparking or sources of ignition,” Queensland Mines Rescue Service manager Wayne Hartley said today.

Prime Minister John Key has warned that it could take months to reach bodies entombed in the mine, preventing grieving families from properly bidding farewell to their loved ones.

The relatives’ slim hopes of a miracle rescue following an explosion at the mine last Friday were dashed by an even bigger blast on Wednesday that authorities said no one could survive.

The “gag unit” machine could not have been used while there was a faint chance some of the men remained alive in the mine shaft at Pike River, on the remote west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said recovering the victims – 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African – was an essential part of bringing closure to distraught relatives.

“We want the miners out of the mines and into the loving arms of the families,” he said today.

Police confirmed the machine, which incorporates a specialist jet engine, had arrived at Hokitika airport, near the mine, but said it was unclear how long it would take to assemble and deploy to make the mine safe for retrieval teams.

A cocktail of explosive gases prevented rescuers from going into the colliery, which sent its first shipment of hard coking coal for steelmaking to India only this year.

Pike River Coal executives were scheduled to meet today to discuss the future of the mine, with the company’s chief executive Peter Whittall and local politicians pushing for it to reopen once rendered safe.

“It’s not like the mine was a big scary place that was waiting to kill them,” Whittall said. “The mine was where we worked, it was where we went to every day, we understood it.”

Key has vowed “no stone would be left unturned” in finding why the 29 men perished and stringent safety mine standards went “terribly wrong”.

Condolence messages have poured in from around the world for the victims, who ranged from a 17-year-old on his first shift to a 62-year-old veteran.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II – who is also the head of state of New Zealand – and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among the dignitaries who expressed sorrow over the tragedy.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said hopes for a repeat of a dramatic rescue in her own country at Tasmania’s Beaconsfield mine in 2006 and last month’s retrieval of 33 Chilean miners had been dashed.

“After Beaconsfield, then Chile this year, I suppose in some part of our minds we were always hoping, always thinking that there’s going to be a happy ending. Unfortunately, and tragically, there wasn’t,” she said.

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