Hopes are waning for the survival of 29 New Zealand coal miners who have been trapped for three days underground, with the presence of explosive gases in the mine shaft delaying a rescue attempt.
Family members have expressed frustration with the pace of the response as officials acknowledged for the first time it may be too late to save the miners, who have not been heard from since a massive explosion ripped through the Pike River Mine on the country’s South Island on Friday.
A build-up of methane gas is the suspected cause of the explosion, though officials say that may not be confirmed for days.
And now the presence of that gas and others – some of them believed to be coming from a smouldering fire deep underground – are delaying a rescue over fears they could still explode.
“Everybody’s frustrated, everybody’s upset,” said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is among the missing. “I have my moments I can keep it together but deep down my heart’s bleeding like everybody else’s.”
Authorities are working on drilling a 500-foot-long, six-inch-wide shaft into the mine tunnel to get a better idea of the air quality in areas where miners were believed trapped by the blast.
Officials will also feed a very high-resolution laser camera down the hole to give rescuers their first sight of conditions – and potentially the men inside, said John Dow, the chairman of Pike River Coal, the mine’s owner.
“We still remain optimistic, we’re still keeping an open mind,” police superintendent Gary Knowles told reporters. “But we are planning for all outcomes, and as part of this process we’re planning for the possible loss of life as a result of what’s occurred underground.”
One of two workers who escaped from the mine described the explosion as “a shotgun blast, but much, much louder and more powerful”. Daniel Rockhouse, 24, was smashed into the mine wall before collapsing amid the smoky, swirling gas and dust.
When he came to, he dragged himself upright and staggered to a nearby compressed air line to breathe in fresh air and gain some strength. He eventually stumbled across the unconscious body of Russell Smith, and dragged him to safety.