There has been no reprieve for the anxious relatives of 29 men trapped in a New Zealand mine, with authorities announcing gas levels remain too dangerous for a rescue attempt to be made.
There has been no word from the men since a massive explosion at the Pike River coal mine on Friday cut power and blew out ventilation fans.
They are believed to have been trapped at least 120 metres underground and up to 2.5 kilometres away from the mine’s main entrance.
Some family members have expressed frustration and anger at what they see as the slow progress of the rescue operation.
But New Zealand Police Superintendent Gary Knowles has held firm in the face of the frustration, saying he will not risk the lives of 16 rescuers for a “half-arsed rescue”.
He admitted the families were “pretty distraught” said they understood the risks faced by the rescuers.
“The rescue team are miners themselves, so they’re like brothers of the miners down there,” he said.
“They [the family members] understand the risks that’s posed by putting these guys underground if it’s not safe, but I’ve given them assurance that my paramount focus is safety. If we send people underground we could lose lives and I’m not prepared to do that.”
Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said relatives would be bused up to the site in order to better understand the challenges faced by the rescuers.
He also told reporters the teams monitoring the ventilation shaft had confirmed evidence of combustion from within the mine, but levels of dangerous gas were falling, and oxygen levels remained high.
“I know it’s very difficult in general parlance when you talk about it as a fire. People think large flames, that sort of thing. What we’re talking about is the gases that arise from combustion and that could just be a low smouldering of coal in the ground or something like that. It’s not necessarily a fire,” he said.
Mr Whittall said the company was drilling a secondary hole further into the mine from the ventilation shaft, in order to better gauge the quality of air, which he hoped would be completed in the next 16 to 24 hours.
“With best intentions and with best drilling rates we should be able to get there later this evening so maybe 16 to 24 hours of drilling,” he said.
“But it is also a difficult environment for the drill rig to be working in. It is a mechanical device, it is up at the top of the mountain and we are drilling down through hard rock. So there is also every chance it could take longer than that.”
Two Australians are among the 29 men trapped underground.
New Zealand prime minister John Key yesterday said every effort was being made to reach the miners, who range in age from a 17 year old, believed to be on his first shift, to a 62 year old.
Mr Key said expressions of support had poured in from around the world, including a personal email from Britain’s Prince William saying his heart and thoughts went out to the miners.
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan has been in contact with Mr Key to offer any Australian assistance required at the mine disaster site.
Rescue teams sent
NSW has sent eight rescue experts to the mine, Queensland has dispatched four personnel and the Federal Government has sent a technical expert from Emergency Management Australia.
Another team of 12 mine rescue experts from Queensland remain on stand-by.
One of at least two Australians trapped by the massive explosion in a New Zealand coal mine has been identified as Josh Ufer.
Mr Ufer, 27, from north Queensland has been working for Pike River Coal for the last nine months and recently found out he is to be a father.
His girlfriend, Rachelle Weaver, is from the area and works for her parents’ New Zealand adventure company. Ms Weaver is reportedly expecting a baby in May next year.
It is believed Mr Ufer’s family is travelling to New Zealand.
The miners are thought to be only about 150 metres from the surface but 2.5 kilometres from the mine entrance in a tunnel that runs beneath the Paparoa mountain range to the coal seam.
Special equipment was flown in from Australia to test gas levels in the mine and Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday the Australian Government would meet any requests for assistance.
Ms Gillard said there had already been one “miracle” mine rescue this year, referring to last month’s successful retrieval of 33 men trapped underground for 69 days at a mine in Chile.
“The world has witnessed a mine disaster already this year, and a miracle when people came out alive, and so our very best wishes go to the New Zealanders as they deal with this situation,” she said.
Two miners who survived the explosion just before 4:00pm (local time) Friday were discharged from hospital after being treated for minor injuries.
They had indicated three others were making their way out, but no one appeared.
Mr Whittall said the cause of the explosion was not known and workers who had been in the mine earlier in the day had not reported any problems.
The tight-knit West Coast district was said to be “grief-stricken” after the accident at the mine, which was hailed as an economic boon for the region when it opened.