A massive explosion deep inside a New Zealand coal mine has erased hopes of rescuing 29 miners, including two Scots, caught underground by a similar blast five days ago.
The prime minister declared it a national tragedy, telling the nation in a televised news conference: “New Zealand has been devastated by the news that we have all been dreading.”
Pete Rodger, 40, from Perthshire, and Malcolm Campbell, 25, from St Andrews, Fife, were among the men missing following Friday’s initial blast at Pike River mine in Atarau on South Island.
Even if any of the missing men had survived the initial explosion on Friday at the Pike River Mine, police said none could have lived through the second. Both blasts are believed to have been caused by explosive, toxic gases swirling in the tunnels dug up to a mile and a half into a mountain. The same gases had prevented rescuers from entering the mine to search for the missing men.
It was one of New Zealand’s worst mining disasters. The country’s industry is relatively small compared with other nations and considered generally safe, with 210 deaths in 114 years after the most recent tragedy.
It also devastated families who – buoyed by the survival tale of Chile’s 33 buried miners – had clung to hope for more than five days that their relatives could emerge alive.
Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall said rescue teams were not doing anything that could have set it off, and conditions inside the mine were such it could have happened at any time. “It was a natural eventuation, it could have happened on the second day, it could have happened on the third day,” he told reporters.
Family members who gathered for a regular daily briefing on the rescue operation’s progress were instead told of the second blast and that no-one could survive. Tony Kokshoorn, the mayor of Greymouth town near the mine, who was at the meeting, said some of the relatives collapsed. Others shouted at police in anger. “It is our darkest day,” he told reporters.
Laurie Drew, father of 21-year-old miner Zen, said rescuers should have gone into the mine on Friday, saying he believed that explosion would have burned off most of the dangerous gases. “They had their window of opportunity that Friday night, and now the truth can’t come out because no one alive will be able to come out and tell the truth about what went on down there,” Mr Drew said. “The only thing that’s going to make matters worse is if we find … out that people were alive after that first blast.”
Mr Knowles said at all times after the initial blast, entering the mine was simply too risky because of high gas levels and evidence of a smouldering coal fire underground that could be an ignition source. Energy minister Gerry Brownlee said a range of official inquiries would probe the cause of the disaster and whether it could have been prevented.