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Safety concerns stall mine rescue

Published: 5:04PM Friday November 19, 2010 Source: ONE News/Reuters

Twenty-seven miners are officially unaccounted for after an explosion at the Pike River Coal mine in Ahaura on the West Coast, and it could be some time before a rescue can take place.

Police said an electrician went into the mine about 3.50pm yesterday to investigate a power outage and discovered a loader driver who had been blown off his machine about 1500 metres into the mine shaft.

Emergency services have confirmed that the loader driver and one other miner made it safely out of the mine. They have arrived at the Grey Base Hospital. Their injuries are not life-threatening.

Earlier, Pike River CEO Peter Whittall said they believe 27 men were underground - 15 Pike River employees and another 12 contractors working on various activities this afternoon.

But late last night, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn put the number of trapped miners at 28.

Kokshoorn said one of his own councillors, Milton Osborne, is among those missing in the mine. He said he is a contractor at the Pike River Coal mine.

Whittall told TV ONE's Close Up there was no evidence of any fatalities.

He said communications underground were "terminated" when the explosion took place.

Police said there is also concern that ventilation inside the mine shaft may be compromised by the power outage.

Specialist mine rescue teams and emergency services remain at the scene. Air quality testing is being carried out because of the unknown atmospheric conditions underground.

It is believed it could be days before a rescue can take place.

Pike River Chairman John Dow said in a coal mine like theirs, when the ventilation goes off, the gas builds up in the mine.

"When the power goes off, staff know they need to evacuate the mines straight away. Going into a mine like that after the power's been off for two or three hours requires rescuers to make sure it's safe for them before they can go in and
look for our people."

He said Pike River's entire effort was focused on their staff and the families of their staff, many of whom have arrived at the mine site.

"We're doing everything we can to provide [the families] with the comfort and support that we can."

Prime Minister John Key said the situation had the potential to be very serious and said the government would provide "any support that is required". He also said the Australian government had been in contact and offered its support and assistance.

Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee and Minister of Labour and Conservation Kate Wilkinson were travelling to the West Coast last night.

"The government stands ready to offer whatever help and resources are required," Brownlee said.

"Various agencies, including police, fire, ambulance and hospitals, are already involved. The West Coast mine rescue team has been activated. It is important that the rescue authorities are given the space to do their jobs properly.

"The thoughts of the government are with the miners, their families, and the rescue personnel dealing with this developing situation."

Support pours in

More than 2000 people have now joined the Supporting the Pike River miners Facebook page, where messages of support have been coming in by the minute.

Comments include this from Sally Marden: "Prayers and thoughts to everyone involved ... will be with you all night, and as long as it takes."

A welfare centre has also been set up for the families of miners.

Police said the centre, at the Red Cross Hall, 180 Tainui Street, Greymouth, is a warm and dry gathering point for family members as they anxiously await news from the mine site.

Red Cross and Victim Support volunteers are at the centre providing comfort and refreshments.

Families are encouraged to use the welfare centre instead of trying to reach the mine's access road which is closed to all but those involved in the rescue and recovery operation.

Cause of explosion unknown

Mine safety expert David Feickert said it is not yet known if it was a gas explosion or a coal dust explosion or a combination of both.

"This is what the rescue teams will be determining along with the management team on the spot," he told TV ONE's Close Up. "That's very important in terms of any rescue that's going to take place. That's the first thing they need to determine.

"In general terms our industry in New Zealand is one of the safer ones in the world, along with Australia, and miners are very well trained to deal with this, so we will have to wait and see what comes out of this to determine what happened.

"It's standard practice to have two exits but it depends on the layout of the mine and where the miners were when the explosion took place and how close they were to either of the two exits."

The mine runs 2.3km into the earth and is the source of high grade coal used in steel production, most particularly for the Indian market.

Shares in Pike River Coal Ltd have been placed in a trading halt. The price of the shares dropped sharply - 14% - on news of the explosion.

The company is around 30% owned by NZ Oil and Gas Ltd with two Indian companies - Gujarat NRE and Saurashtra Fuels - as substantial minority shareholders.

The last major coal mining disaster in New Zealand was in 1967 when 19 miners were killed in an explosion at a coal mine in the same part of the country, a major coal-producing region.

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