Up to 30 workers were unaccounted for after an explosion ripped through a coal mine in New Zealand, officials said.
Emergency services raced to the scene after the blast, which occurred at approximately 3.45pm on Friday, was reported at the Pike River Coal Processing Plant near the town of Atarau on the west coast of the South Island, police said.
Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Wittall confirmed that two workers had made it out of the mine, but it was not known exactly how many others were still inside.
He said: “We’ve had our afternoon shift underground and we’ve had communications with a couple of the employees and we’ve had two men return to the surface.
“They’re being interviewed and we’re trying to determine… the full nature of the incident.
“One of the employees has said he felt an explosion underground and since then he’s walked from the mine with another employee. We have no further information at this stage.”
Police area commander John Canning said details were still sparse but initial reports suggested at least 30 people were in the mine and that they could be up to 5,000ft (1,500m) underground.
Local mayor Tony Kokshoorn added: “We don’t know at what depth the explosion is but there’s certainly a big explosion. With a bit of luck, things might be okay. But there’s 25 to 30 miners unaccounted for.”
Energy minister Gerry Brownlee said the last contact with any of the miners was at about 4.15pm, and he confirmed that emergency exit tunnels were built into the mine but he did not know if they could be accessed by the miners.
Pike River said its coal preparation plant at the site is the largest and most modern in New Zealand and processes up to 1.5 million tons a year of raw coal. The mine is not far from the site of one of New Zealand’s worst mining disasters – an underground explosion in the state-owned Strongman Mine on January 19 1967 that killed 19 workers.