Hopes begin to fade for New Zealand's miners

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As hopes diminish that the 29 miners trapped underground in New Zealand will be found alive, relatives visiting the site for the first time were overcome with grief yesterday at seeing the men's cars still parked outside, and a board with their name tags missing.

Nearly three days after an explosion in the Pike River coalmine, on the South Island's remote west coast, rescuers were still waiting to enter the site because of fears of a build-up of methane and carbon monoxide. A fire was believed to be burning underground, generating more toxic gases.

John Keys, the Prime Minister, said: "We have to hang on to hope. The most important thing now is we don't make a ham-fisted attempt at rescue."

Yesterday experts began drilling a bore hole through 500ft of rock, to help assess air quality and to lower listening devices into the mine. But the local police commander, Gary Knowles, said authorities had "no idea" when it would be safe for rescuers to go in. "It could take a day, it could take weeks," he said.

Daniel Rockhouse, 24, who was caught in the explosion and was one of two miners to emerge after the blast, said: "There was white smoke everywhere – worse than a fire. I knew straight away it was carbon monoxide."

Mr Rockhouse, whose brother Ben remains underground, told the New Zealand Herald: "I yelled, 'Help, somebody help me!' But no one came. There was no one there."

Arrangements were being made to fly the families of two Scottish miners, Peter Rodger and Malcolm Campbell, to New Zealand, along with relatives of two Australians and a South African who are missing.

For relatives already in Greymouth, the nearest sizeable town to Pike River, the waiting continued. With no word from the men since Friday's blast, they were increasingly angry and frustrated by the delay. "Every day we don't hear a voice from that mine, it becomes desperate," said Tony Kokshoorn, the local mayor.

Rejecting accusations of excessive caution, the manager of NZ Mines Rescue, Trevor Watts, likened the mine to a gun barrel. "You put a bullet at one end of the gun, it's going to come out the other end," he said, in a reference to the fireball which raced along the main tunnel after the explosion.

The mining towns on the rugged west coast are tight-knit, and Mr Watts said he had "30 brave men ... waiting to go underground to rescue our brothers". He added: "The whole lot of them are our brothers. We're a small community and we know all those guys there."

Families were taken on a two-hour tour of the mine site yesterday.