Tragedy as 29 perish in NZealand mine

November 24, 2010 12:00 am

, New Zealand, Nov 24 – 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," the prime minister said. "Today, all New Zealanders grieve for these men. We are a nation in mourning."

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 anguished and angry scenes 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.

The victims of the blasts ranged from a 17-year-old on his first shift to a 62-year-old veteran, and included 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.

"It\’s unbelievable. This is the West Coast\’s darkest hour. It doesn\’t get worse than this," Kokshoorn said, adding that devastated relatives were questioning why a rescue was not attempted sooner.

Related article: Fury of families as miners believed dead

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

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

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 mine 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 New Zealand\’s 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 neighbouring Australia which sent expertise and equipment for the rescue effort.

She said the "nation is grieving" with the families of Australians William Joynson, 49, and Joshua Ufer, 25, who leaves behind a pregnant partner.

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 an earlier one broke down — also travelled about a kilometre (half-a-mile) into the mine and found the helmet of one of the only two survivors, its headlight still lit.

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

An emotional Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall 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," Whittall 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.

"This is difficult for the families, this is devastating for them."

The mine is a new facility which sent its first shipment of steel-making, hard coking coal to India only this year, after overcoming setbacks including a rockfall in a ventilation shaft.


Latest Articles

Most Viewed