'National tragedy' as 29 perish in N.Z. mine disaster

24th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

All 29 men missing in a New Zealand coal mine have died after a powerful second blast tore through the pit, authorities said Wednesday, plunging the country into mourning.

Police said there was now no chance of finding anyone alive, confirming the country's worst mining accident in nearly a century. Prime Minister John Key called it a "national tragedy" and said flags would fly at half-mast.

"Where this morning we held on to hope, we must now make way for sorrow," Key said. "Today, all New Zealanders grieve for these men. We are a nation in mourning."

Police Superintendent Gary Knowles, who led stuttering rescue efforts, said he was at the mountainside Pike River mine when the sickening second explosion hit at 2:37 pm (0137 GMT), five days after Friday's initial blast.

"There was another explosion at the mine. It was extremely severe," he said.

"Based on expert evidence I have been given... it is our belief that no one has survived and everyone has perished."

The news prompted anguish and anger among relatives, who had suffered an agonising wait for a rescue that never came as toxic gases stopped emergency teams from entering the mine in New Zealand's South Island.

In the grief-stricken town of Greymouth, home to many of the miners, builder Mike Curtis said locals were united in believing that rescuers should have gone in "straight away -- all the old-timers knew that".

The victims of the blasts ranged from a 17-year-old on his first shift to a 62-year-old veteran, and include two Australians, two Britons and a South African.

District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the incident was the "darkest hour" of New Zealand's rugged West Coast region, a centre of the country's burgeoning mining industry based on exports to Asia.

The mine is a new facility that sent its first shipment of hard coking coal for making steel to India only this year.

"It's unbelievable. It doesn't get worse than this," Kokshoorn said, adding that devastated relatives were questioning why a rescue was not attempted sooner.

"They just sobbed openly, just fell to the floor. There were people just shouting out, anger," he said.

"The cause (of the second explosion) was the build-up over the last five days of the gases again and they noticed this morning. A lethal mixture ignited the entire mine."

Stop-start rescue efforts had earlier inched forward when a bore hole into the mine finally broke through, but found only a toxic cocktail of dangerous gases with little oxygen.

A remote-controlled robot -- the second such device after a first one broke down -- also travelled about a kilometre (two-thirds of mile) into the mine and found the helmet of one of the only two survivors, its headlight still on.

But rescue efforts were dramatically ended when the second blast ripped through the gas-filled network of tunnels.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said efforts would be made to recover the bodies of those killed. He said a series of inquiries aimed at finding out the cause of the disaster and preventing any repeat would be carried out.

New Zealand lost 19 miners in 1967 but the last accident on this scale was in 1914, when 43 died in a gas explosion at a mine in Huntly on the North Island.

"Our hearts go out to them and on behalf of the Australian people I give the condolences of this nation," said Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia, which sent experts and equipment for the rescue effort.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his "immense sadness" at the disaster, adding that "our thoughts are with... all those whose lives have been marked by this tragedy."

He said British diplomats had been in close contact with the two British men's families, adding: "We are doing all we can to support them at this time of terrible loss."

An emotional Peter Whittall, chief executive of Pike River Coal, said he personally broke the news to the miners' relatives.

"They had looked to me for hope and to keep them informed of what was going on," he said. "This takes us to the point where I'm unlikely to see my workmates again and unlikely to seen them walk out of that mine."

Whittall said emergency crews would remain at the mine, monitoring for when gas levels drop to a level that allows the grim task of retrieving the bodies.

"We want our boys back," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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