New Zealand’s prime minister has warned his nation to prepare for the worst as 29 coal miners remained trapped and unreachable five days after a massive news underground blast.
A bomb-disposal robot that was sent into the Pike River mine to assess conditions and learn the fate of the men short-circuited and failed when it hit water.
Replacements were being flown in but Gary Knowles, head of the rescue operation said poisonous gasses were still too strong to allow teams to go in.
“This is a very serious situation and the longer it goes on, hopes fade, and we have to be realistic,” he said.
The robot’s failure and the release of security camera footage showing the huge power of the blast last Friday sent relatives’ hopes for the men’s survival plummeting.
“We hope and pray that the missing men are alive and well,” Prime Minister John Key said in a sombre address to parliament. “But given we have not had contact with the men for nearly four days, the situation remains grave. Although we must stay optimistic, police are now planning for the possible loss of life.”
There had been little progress hours later, when the situation entered its fifth day.
The youngest of the 29 miners was on his first day on the job, just a day after his 17th birthday. Joseph Dunbar was so excited he persuaded mine bosses to let him start his first shift three days early, his mother, Philippa Timms, said.
Police Minister Judith Collins said everybody shared the frustration of the miners’ families that a rescue had not yet started. “The situation is bleak, it is grave, but we can’t put people underground to risk their lives,” she said.
The security footage showed a wall of white dust surging from the mine entrance and small stones rolling past for about 50 seconds as the force of the blast ripped out of the mine.