By Gyles Beckford, Reuters
GREYMOUTH — All 29 miners trapped underground in a New Zealand mine for five days are believed to be dead following a second explosion in the Pike River Coal mine, police said on Wednesday.
“It is our belief that no one has survived and everyone will have perished. This is one of the most tragic things I have had to do as a police officer,” police superintendent Gary Knowles told reporters.
The miners were trapped in the 2.3 km (1.4 mile) main tunnel last Friday night when methane gas caused a massive explosion in the mountain on New Zealand’s south island.
Deadly toxic gas and fears of further explosions stopped rescuers entering the mine, despite desperate pleas by the miners’ relatives that rescue teams enter the mine to find their husbands and sons.
Rescuers used robots and electronic devices to explore for life in the mine, but there were no signs that any survived the initial blast.
On Wednesday morning rescuers said there was little chance any of the miners were still alive, but continued to monitor toxic gas levels hoping the air would clear enough for rescue teams to enter the mine.
A few hours later a massive explosion occurred.
“The cause was the build up over the last six days of the gases again. A lethal mixture ignited the entire mine,” said local mayor Tony Kokshoorn.
“It was a far larger (explosion) than the first one and at that point it was the end of everyone. This is the west coast’s darkest hour,” said Kokshoorn.
Mine chief Peter Whittall said the second explosion was what rescuers had always feared.
“Its dangerous and its hazardous and the rescue teams would be putting their lives gravely at risk (to enter the mine). While we were there and making that assessment, exactly what we said could happen, happened,” said Whittall.
“Realistically many would never have come out alive,” said a tearful Whittall.
But relatives of the dead miners were angry that rescuers had not immediately entered the mine to save their loved ones. They said that straight after the first blast the deadly gases would have been consumed in the explosion.
“If they do find that people were alive after that first blast there is going to be a lot of problems,” said Laurie Drew, father of 21-year-old trapped miner Zen.
“Now the truth can’t come out because no one down there will come out alive,” said Drew.
There have been previous examples of mine rescue attempts being called off because of the danger with the bodies left entombed at the site.
Three years ago in Utah, a search for six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine, a bituminous coal mine, was abandoned after three rescue workers were killed.
About 50 km to the North of the Pike River mine, a mine is still believed to be burning underground, nearly 60 years after it first caught fire.