Rescuers will be forced to wait at least six hours before they are able to enter the Pike River coal mine, where 29 miners remain trapped after a large explosion yesterday afternoon.
Rescue efforts may be hampered by weather after it started raining 30 minutes ago.
Anguished families have gathered, desperate to hear any information about their missing loved ones.
While many of the miners are thought to be locals, several of the trapped are believed to be from South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Helicopters have been flying over all morning but cannot land at the entrance to the mine because of the thick cloud.
Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall told a press conference this morning that concerns remain over air quality and potentially explosive gases in the mine.
“In six to eight hours we will have enough analysis as to whether the rescue team can go underground.”
He also assured family and friends of the trapped miners that the company is doing every humanly and technically possible to recover them.
“Our primary focus over the next 24 hours is rescue and recovery. Before we put rescue teams down want to make sure environment is stable,” Whittall said.
Whittall said damage to the upper part of mine shaft in the explosion meant “we can’t get accurate samples.”
“The only way we can determine what is happening underground is to monitor the air coming to the ground.”
“We can’t tell the absolute quality of that, so we can’t risk sending anyone into the mine.”
“We are very confident once we can get some bag samples we should be able to get some rescuers underground.”
Hazards that the trapped miners have to deal with will include air pollution, high methane levels, high carbon dioxide and low levels of oxygen.
“There is a fresh air base underground. One of miners went into it before he came out.
“There could well be men in that chamber underground but at this stage we don’t know,” Mr Whittall said.
Specialist gas testing equipment was flown in from Australia overnight.
Tasman District commander Superintendant Gary Knowles expressed strong determination to get the men out of the Pike River mine at this morning’s press conference.
“This is a search and rescue operation,” he told media, “and we are going to bring these guys home.”
Police have confirmed 29 men aged between 17 and 62 years are trapped in the mine, including 16 Pike River employees and 13 contractors. Most of the trapped men are New Zealanders, but there are Australians and British nationals also missing.
The message that Whittall is sending families and friends of the trapped miners is that this disaster is a “shared experience”.
“I know all of the men, I’ve employed all of the men. It’s very much a kinship and brotherhood in the mining industry,” he said.
“When I look down the list [of those trapped] I can see the faces of everyone on the list,” he said.
“There’s a brother of one that got out, there’s a son underground of one of the mining officials. These are men that everyone in the room knows.”
“I have assured them we are doing everything that’s humanly possible and technically possible to recover their families and friends.”
“The families are very obviously distressed. No knowledge is a bad thing in these situations. There was very intermittent knowledge coming through overnight.”
All next of kin have been notified, he said.
Whittall noted that it was unlikely that the explosion could have caused a collapse at the mine, where 29 miners remain missing.
He expects the mine’s structural integrity to hold due to the design and materials used.
“Mine explosions don’t typically damage the roof unless there are timber props that can be knocked out,” he said at a press conference this morning, “we don’t have those in the mine.”
“We’ve got a very strong roof, it’s all fully bolted and I would believe it’s unlikely that an explosion even of a significant magnitude would actually damage the [mine tunnel,” said Whittall.
Officials remain concerned about the possible levels of methane gas in the mine.
Mr Whittall said they weren’t aware of any hazardous circumstances in the mine on Friday and added the miners have an oxygen device which can give them 30 to 60 minutes of clean air.
Chile rescue offers hope
Families gathered outside the Pike River Coal offices in Greymouth early this morning to hear the latest news of the 29 trapped miners.
Looking tired and anxious, the families are hearing a briefing from Pike River Coal and rescue authorities who are still not able to enter the mine after the explosion yesterday afternoon.
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn was greeting each family member with hugs. He said the successful Chilean mine rescue is giving him hope.
“We remember the Chile mine recently, that every miner got out. At the moment, we’re hanging onto every hope, just like they did.
However, Mr Kokshoorn said a speedy rescue was not likely.
“Rescue crews are doing all they can, but this is going to be a very slow recovery.”
Rescuers are still waiting for the all-clear on gas build-up before going into the coal mine.
Two miners out
Nothing had been heard from the men since the explosion deep underground yesterday afternoon.
The alarm was raised when mine electrician Russell Smith, 50, investigated a power cut at 3.50pm.
He discovered loader driver Daniel Rockhouse, 24, who had been blown off his machine.
The two men, who were working some distance from the other mine staff, escaped through a service portal and walked 2km through a valley to alert emergency services.
The pair had moderate injuries and were taken to Grey Hospital in Greymouth.
“One of them talked about being knocked to the ground. He believed he was knocked unconscious by the blast,” Mr Whittall said.
Both of the men were working alone at the time and one of them was driving a vehicle about 700 metres into the mine.
The other one was a couple of kilometres in, Mr Whittall said.
Mr Whittall said both men were “shaken up, bruised and disorientated” and it “took a lot for one of the men to get to the point to explain what happened”, Mr Whittall said.
Mr Smith was last night back at home, but his partner, Donna Ryan, said he was in no state to talk.
“We’re so relieved. He’s just come home and is resting up in bed.”
Christchurch-born Mr Rockhouse, 24, is married with a 3-year-old daughter and has worked for Pike River Coal since June 2008.
One of the missing miners is Grey District councillor Milton Osborne.
His son said last night the family were waiting for news. “They’re not out yet. We haven’t heard anything.”
Pike River Coal chairman John Dow earlier refused to comment on the fate of those trapped.
“We’re hoping for the best, but we don’t have enough information to speculate at this point,” he said.
Last night, after saying that power had been restored to the mine, he said he did not know when the rescue team would enter the mine, as they were still assessing the safety risk.
Veteran West Coast journalist Paul McBride, 56, of the Greymouth Evening Star, said that after looking at the damage he captured on film, “I would say the outcome will not be good”.
The mine entrance looked “reasonably normal”, but the escape portal showed obvious signs of a “pretty big fire and explosion”.
McBride surveyed the area from a helicopter just before a no-fly zone was established.
Prime Minister John Key said last night the Government would give any support required to the miners and their families.
Greymouth High School principal Jim Luders was waiting for a clearer picture before calling together senior managers to discuss who among his pupils would need counselling.
He said 25 families with children at the school would have connections with the mine.
NZ HERALD STAFF