Deep in a mine, the phone rings unanswered

In New Zealand, 29 men are missing, and tempers fray as rescue is delayed

Kathy Marks
Sunday 21 November 2010 01:00 GMT

With fears of a second explosion preventing rescuers from entering a New Zealand coalmine where 29 men have been trapped since Friday, the anguish and impatience of relatives boiled over yesterday.

Families of the men, who include two Britons, endured a second night of not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. There has been an ominous silence since two miners stumbled out on Friday, a few hours after a blast so violent it sent a fireball shooting through the mine and out of the single ventilation shaft. Worried about a build-up of dangerous and combustible gases, police have refused to send in rescuers until the Pike River mine, on the west coast of the South Island, is deemed safe. More air quality tests were due to be carried out this morning, but for relatives the waiting game is excruciating.

Kept away from the site itself, families have congregated in a Red Cross centre in Greymouth, the nearest town, 50km away. "If I had my way, I'd be down there, and I'd go into the mine myself," Laurie Drew, told Television New Zealand. His 21-year-old son, Zen, is among the missing. "I'd go and look myself, gas or not."

Early on Sunday, officials said that a new shaft to test air quality would be needed before rescue teams could enter the mine. This could take 24 hours more. And compounding the families' torment is the absence of communication from the miners, who range from a 17-year-old, believed to have been on his first shift, to a man of 62. A phone at the bottom of the mine has rung unanswered for the past day and a half, although it is known to be working. As safety experts pumped air into the mine, hoping it would reach the stranded men, messages of support flooded in from around the world – including from Chile, where 33 miners were rescued after being trapped for 69 days.

The Britons were named yesterday as Pete Rodger, 40, from Perthshire, and another Scot, Malcolm Campbell, 25. A former offshore oil engineer, Mr Rodger emigrated to New Zealand two years ago, in order to be closer to his mother and sister, who live there.

Pike River, one of the country's biggest coalmines, is in a remote mountainous area. The mayor, Tony Kokhsoorn, said a rescue could take days, with efforts hampered by isolation, the poor weather and an electricity blackout at the site. The explosion destroyed the mine's ventilation system, and experts say the power failure may have encouraged a build-up of gas. However, no one knows what caused the gas to ignite. The danger posed by explosive methane and poisonous carbon dioxide is the main reason that rescuers had still not entered the site by last night.

Gary Knowles, the local police commander, said that reaching the miners as quickly as possible while ensuring no rescuers got hurt was "a fine balancing act". He told reporters: "As the search commander, I'm not prepared to put people underground until we can prove it's a safe environment. We don't work on gut feelings. We work on facts. It's a case of safety first."

On the question of whether the 29 men survived the explosion, Mr Knowles said: "I'm an eternal optimist that we are going to go down there and find these guys and bring them out." His buoyancy was echoed by Peter Whittall, Pike River Coal's chief executive, who speculated that the miners had reached a safety refuge. "We have kept those [air] compressors going and we are pumping fresh air into the mine, so it is quite conceivable that a large number of men are sitting around the end of that open pipe, waiting and wondering why we are taking our time getting to them."

In the meantime, though, relatives have nothing to clutch on to – not even the prospect of an imminent rescue. Mr Kokshoorn said the community in and around Greymouth was numbed with grief, and the whole town was at a standstill. "We are hanging on to hope until someone tells us otherwise," he said, but conceded that "every hour that goes by, it gets more dire".

The men are believed to be only about 150m beneath the surface, but 2.5km from the mine entrance, in a tunnel that runs beneath the Paparoa mountain range to the coal seam. Pike River is close to the site of another mining disaster – an explosion which killed 19 people at the Strongman State Mine in 1968. The country's worst incident took place in 1896, when 65 men died in an underground blast at the Brunner mine.

The two known survivors of Friday's blast – one of them a grader driver, Daniel Rockhouse, who was blown off his machine – told police that three of their colleagues were on their way out. However, no one else appeared. Mr Rockhouse was discharged from hospital yesterday, as was Russell Smith, an electrician sent into the mine to investigate the power failure.

As darkness fell yesterday, safety technicians stopped monitoring air quality, although rescuers and health workers remained on standby. The caution being exercised was applauded by Professor Bruce Hebblewhite, the head of the Mining and Engineering School at the University of New South Wales. To rush in "would be quite foolhardy ... and in times gone by that's led to accidents with the rescue teams themselves". However, Mr Drew said relatives were sick of listening to the mine company's reasons for the delay. "We go and sit there and listen to what they tell us in the office, and it's just the same old runaround. Excuses for why things can't be done, instead of trying to find solutions." Families were also upset they were not allowed on the site, he said.

Among the missing men are a local councillor, Milton Osborne, a star rugby player in the region, Blair Sims, and an unnamed father of five. Mr Rockhouse's brother, Ben, is trapped, too. There are also two Australians and a South African. Specialist gas testing equipment was flown from Australia yesterday, along with 13 rescue and technical experts.

The Pike River mine, which opened in 2008, has been beset by delays, most notably caused by the collapse of a ventilation shaft not long before it was due to start production. It produces high-grade coal used in steel production, particularly for the Indian market. This year has been a black one for the mining industry, with the Chilean mine collapse, accidents in China and now the explosion in New Zealand.

Mayor Kokshoorn spoke for many when he said: "It's a hopeless situation. You want to help, but you can't. You just want to run down the mine and see if everyone's all right." New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, who has received messages of solidarity from around the world, including an email from Prince William, said: "It's a difficult time for everyone, but we're determined to get the men out alive." Mr Drew said: "I just want my boy back."

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