SA man still trapped in NZ mine

2010-11-21 08:26

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Greymouth - Efforts to rescue 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine faced more agonising delays on Sunday when authorities said they needed to 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."

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 throughout the mine before finally entering.

Drilling of the new, narrow shaft had not begun by Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after the blast, as the drill rig was being assembled on a steep hillside above the mine, whose main access shaft is dug horizontally into the side of a mountain range.

Drilling holes

The hole will be drilled to a depth of up to 150m to enable additional air tests to be done, but the operation could take as long as 24 hours.

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 taken to the mine site and spent around an hour watching the rescue preparations.

Knowles denied suggestions that the operation was moving slowly because they did not expect to find anyone alive.

Toxic gas

"This is still a search and rescue operation, the focus being on rescue, we're still positive that we're going to able to facilitate a rescue," Knowles said.

Tests 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 vapour was coming out of the mine entrance.

The tests are being conducted every 30 minutes at the mine's shafts, but the toxic gas levels were fluctuating. They need to be falling to allow rescue teams to go in.

"The area of greatest concern is the explosive atmosphere, we've got to be certain we're not going to compromise the safety of the people we will rescue and the rescue teams," said Trevor Watts, the manager of the New Zealand Mine Rescue Service.

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

Dramatic rescue

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 metres 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 2.3km 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 metres to the surface to provide fresh air, and a compressed air line is still being pumped in.

Watts said there were 30 rescuers ready to go, but even when they went in, it would not be easy. Rescuers would be equipped with their own air supply, taking as long as two hours to walk over the uneven ground and through dark, smoke-filled tunnels.

Explosion

"This not like walking down to the local supermarket...we can't head into the mine in a hurry," Watts said.

Whittall said he had spoken again to the two initial survivors, who raised the alarm and walked out, and it was now believed the explosion occurred around 1.7 km along the main mine shaft. All the miners would have been working within 200 metres 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.

Read more on:    new zealand  |  mining
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