NEW Zealand’s prime minister has warned his nation to prepare for the worst as 29 coal miners including two Australians remained trapped and unreachable five days after a huge underground blast.
“We hope and pray that the missing men are alive and well,” Prime Minister John Key said in a sombre address to parliament yesterday.
“But given we have not had contact with the men … the situation remains grave. Although we must stay optimistic, police are now planning for the possible loss of life.”
There were no signs of life in a refuge inside the Pike River coal mine when a camera was sent down a 60cm shaft yesterday, peeking into a pocket of fresh air where miners could retreat in an emergency.
The vision revealed some minor carnage, but nothing else, Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall said.
“There was no one there, there was no sign of any person in the area,” he said.
There has been no communication with the men aged from 17 to 62 years since a methane blast ripped through the remote South Island mine, near Greymouth, on Friday.
The police officer in charge of the rescue, Superintendent Gary Knowles, said anxiety was mounting as toxic gas levels continued to stop authorities from sending crews into the mountainside mine.
“We continue to plan for the rescue. However, we are aware that the likelihood of this occurring is diminishing and we have to be frank about the situation,” Superintendent Knowles said yesterday.
“The risk of secondary explosion is real, and there’s a great risk.
“We’re not prepared to put other staff underground and put their lives in danger.
“The situation is bleak, it is grey.”
New Zealand Police Commissioner Howard Broad said: “The situation is bleak and gets bleaker by the hour, by the day”.
Frustrated family members were shown a sobering 52-second video of the powerful blast captured at the entry to the coal mine.
The hazy CCTV footage showed grey stone dust blowing out of the mine and a metal sheet violently flapping as the blast occured at least 2.5km inside the shaft.
“It’s certainly a strong piece of information for me because it shows that the blast was quite large and it went on for a long time,” Mr Whittall said.
However, the CEO said he was determined to remain optimistic.
“What sustains my hope … is the survival or otherwise of a blast of that nature depends on where you are and what structure you’re behind or where you’re standing,” he said yesterday.
“We still have a compressed air line going underground.
“I think it’s becoming obvious that we may not be 29 guys all sitting together, waiting to be rescued.
“How many of them there are, I don’t know. But those are the ones we need to rescue, and those are the ones I’m waiting to see.”
Another NZ Defence robot arrived at the remote mine yesterday afternoon, after the first military-use machine broke down just 500m into its early morning mission.
Another couple of robots were due to arrive from Western Australia and the US later in the week.
Additional equipment from Australia was being sent via chopper to the scene and additional staff from New South Wales had arrived.
A tube to allow more efficient testing of gas levels in the mine has been rigged up, and crews were searching for another drilling point in the rugged terrain.
Attempts to drill a 162m shaft into the mine have continued to be hampered as hard rocky layers slowed the process and a motor had to be repaired.
But Mr Whittall hopes to use a diamond-head drill to bore through the remaining 10m into the tunnel by early today.
Family will also be briefed on progress made overnight and a formal media conference will follow.
Queenslander William Joynson and his wife, Kim, had spent a year in New Zealand and had begun packing to return to Queensland when Friday’s explosion happened.
As soon as sons Jonathon, 13, and Benjamin, 10, finished the school year, the family planned to head home.
The Joynsons had shaped a life in New Zealand, focused on the coalmining community and the local Jehovah’s Witness community, of which they were active members.
Mr Joynson is a “typical Australian”, friends James Ashby and Rodger Griffiths said.
“He’s big and strong and loud and funny – a typical Aussie,” Mr Griffiths told the Herald Sun.
The other Australian Joshua Ufer, 25, has a pregnant girlfriend, Rachelle Weaver, waiting for him in Greymouth.