Gases delay rescue for New Zealand miners

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The Independent Online

Anguished relatives voiced frustration as poisonous gases prevented rescuers from entering a New Zealand coal mine today, a day after a powerful blast left 29 workers missing underground.

"If I had my way I'd be down there, I'd go into the mine myself," said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is one of the missing men.

Rescue organizers said the level of methane and carbon monoxide was still too high to send a crew into the Pike River Mine. Two miners reached the surface after Friday's gas explosion, but there has been no word from 29 others. Police said the miners, aged 17 to 62, are believed to be about 1.2 miles down the main tunnel.

"Unfortunately it's just not as simple as putting on a mask and gown and rushing in there," the police search controller, superintendent Gary Knowles, told TV One. "It does pose a danger to those guys underground and ... a danger to the staff going in."

After a day of monitoring, air quality tests showed that gas levels had not dropped sufficiently and Knowles said the rescuers would remain on standby until the gases were next checked early tomorrow.

He remained confident that the 16 mine employees and 13 contract miners had survived.

"This is a search and rescue operation, and we are going to bring these guys home," Knowles said.

The blast was most likely caused by coal gas igniting, Pike River Mine Ltd. chief executive Peter Whittall said.

Electricity in the mine went out shortly before the explosion and that failure may have caused ventilation problems and contributed to a buildup of gas. The power outage continued to frustrate efforts Saturday to pump in fresh air and make it safe for rescuers, though Whittall said air was flowing freely through a compressed air line damaged in the explosion.

"We have kept those compressors going and we are pumping fresh air into the mine somewhere. It is quite conceivable there is a large number of men sitting around the end of that open pipe waiting and wondering why we are taking our time getting to them," Whittall said.

A working phone line to the bottom of the mine, however, had rung unanswered.

Families of the missing men gathered at a Red Cross hall in nearby Greymouth today, and were being briefed hourly on rescue efforts. Most have declined to talk to reporters, as have the two men who made it out of the mine.

"There is a great sense of anxiety and genuine fear, and I think that's only natural given the ... difficulty of the situation," Prime Minister John Key told reporters after visiting the families. "We reflected to them that they have to hang on to hope. As we saw in the case of Chilean mine, 33 miners did get out alive."

Father Laurie Drew said he was frustrated by the lack of action from rescuers, who he said were giving excuses instead of finding solutions.

As he spoke to TV One, Drew wore his son's jacket. "I wore it so I can give it back to him when he comes out," he said, choking back tears. "I just want my boy home."