New Zealand rescue workers have been forced to wait for tests to show the air is safe before entering a coal mine shaft where 29 men are missing in the country's first mining disaster in more than 40 years.
'I'm not prepared to put people underground until we can prove it's a safe environment,' police superintendent Gary Knowles said at a news conference in Greymouth on the west coast of the nation's South Island, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the mine site. 'We just need the right opportunity and the right time to get down there.'
Officials stopped testing air in the mine tunnel at 4 p.m. local time and won't resume taking samples before tomorrow, Sky News reported, citing local police. Families of the missing workers are becoming frustrated that rescue teams haven't yet tried to enter the shaft, Sky said.
An explosion ripped through the mine yesterday afternoon, knocking out power to its ventilation system. The workers' condition and location is unknown and there has been no contact with them, said Peter Whittall, chief executive officer of Pike River Coal Co., which runs the mine.
The men comprise 16 Pike River employees and 13 contractors, whose ages range from 17 to 62, Whittall said. Twenty-four of those trapped are New Zealanders, two are Australian, two are British and one is South African, the New Zealand Herald reported, citing Greymouth police.
The two Britons originate from Scotland, the Foreign Office in London said today.
The results from air quality tests of samples taken from the top of the mine tunnel are 'inconclusive,' Whittall said at the press conference today. Rescuers are monitoring levels of gases including methane, carbon dioxide and ethane, he said. Knowles said he had a 16-strong team waiting to enter the mine.
While the mine is 'what I would class a moderately gassy mine,' there was nothing to suggest a heightened risk of an explosion, Whittall said. Gas is a 'hazard' and 'something we work with all the time,' he said.
Two miners who managed to walk to the surface yesterday were treated in hospital and discharged today, West Coast District Health Board Chief Executive David Meates said.
Prime Minister John Key told reporters in Greymouth he had received international messages of support, including an e-mail from Britain's Prince William.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said the country was providing technical officials to assist with the rescue effort. Australia is 'gravely concerned' about two of its nationals who may be involved in the accident, he said in Sydney.
Help From Australia
New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally said the state was sending eight mine rescue officials to the site, while Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said her state had sent four mine safety officers, including two gas chemists, and equipment.
New Zealand's last mining disaster was in 1967, when 19 people died in a blast at the Strongman coal mine, also near Greymouth.
Mining accidents are more common in countries such as China, where a gas explosion rocked an underground mine in Henan province on Oct. 16, killing 37 people. In Chile, 33 men were rescued from a copper and gold mine last month following the world's longest mine rescue.
An accident at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April killed 29 people.
China, the world's biggest coal producer and consumer, has the worst mine safety record, with an average of seven deaths a day in accidents last year. In Chile, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said Oct. 25 that the government will probably announce changes to health and safety rules by the end of November.
Yesterday's blast came without any warning of 'heightened risk,' said Andrew Little, the national secretary for the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union, representing 71 of about 140 workers at the mine. 'It's only been in production for a year or so,' he said. 'They delayed production because they weren't satisfied that the ventilation system was right, so they've been pretty careful about that.'
Pike River is part-owned by India's Gujarat NRE Coke Ltd. and Saurashtra Fuels Pvt., which also take some of its low-ash, low-phosphorus coking coal, used by steelmakers. The mine was forecast to produce 320,000 to 360,000 metric tons of coal in the year through June, the company said Oct. 19.
Pike River shares slumped 14 percent to 61 Australian cents in Sydney yesterday before trading was halted. The company fell 4.4 percent to 88 New Zealand cents by the Wellington close.
Mining employs about 6,000 people in New Zealand, according to government website www.beehive.govt.nz. The industry earned about NZ$1.1 billion ($857 million) in export receipts in 2009.