Rescuers in New Zealand are still waiting for the all-clear to enter a mine where an explosion has trapped 29 workers underground.
At least two Australians are among the group trapped by a reported methane gas explosion in the mine about 50 kilometres north-east of the town of Greymouth, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
Families of the trapped miners are waiting anxiously for news but so far there has there has been no word from the miners since the blast.
The risk of another explosion is one of the biggest fears facing authorities as they plan the rescue of the miners who have been trapped underground since Friday afternoon.
Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittal says officials do not know the level of carbon monoxide inside the mine and a series of air tests has so far been inconclusive.
Earlier Greymouth District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told some media outlets that air tests had given the all-clear for rescuers to enter the mine.
But Police Superintendent Gary Knowles, who is overseeing the rescue operation, says the results of the latest in a series of four air quality tests over vent shafts are still being analysed.
He says no decision will be made on when a mine rescue team might be able to access the tunnel until the test results are known.
“As the search commander, I’m not prepared to put people underground until we can prove it’s a safe environment,” he said.
“So we will still keep liaising with the families, still look for that window of opportunity to get underground and get these guys out.
“Once this window opens, we only have a short time frame to get in there, look at what’s down there and then make a decision what we’re going to do.
“We still remain positive and we believe that once that window of opportunity opens we are ready to go.”
Superintendent Knowles says rescuers remain positive and focused on getting the miners out.
“The guys at the scene are focusing on getting their equipment ready, going through drills, looking at various risks they will face underground and being prepared for the search.”
Mr Whittal says when rescue teams do go into the mine, they will establish a fresh air base.
“From there they can do a search and recovery of the rest of the mine,” he said.
“It’s not a large area, the men would be working quite close together, and even if they were working in seperate areas they’d be still quite close together and the rescue teams won’t have a large area to cover (in) their search.”
Pike River Coal says the youngest miner underground is 17 and the eldest is 62.
Relatives of the missing miners spent the night near the pit with support staff.
Mr Whittal says there are 16 Pike River employees and 13 contractors unaccounted for, and family members have been briefed.
“There’s about eight of the 29 that we don’t have any details on, especially the contractors,” he said.
“There was two Australians underground, at least two, because as I said there are about eight that we don’t know their nationality. There was a number of British citizens and Kiwis.”
He says the families of the trapped miners are coping as best they can.
“It’s obviously still a very trying time for them. They are spending a lot of time with each other and there’s not a lot they can do,” he said.
“It’s very much like the rest of us. We can only wait and, as the Superintendent said, wait for the right opportunity to get into the mine and they understand that.”
Mr Whittal says relatives are being kept in the town, away from the rescue area, because the site is already congested.
“While we’re very, very empathetic and we’re doing everything we can for the families, allowing 29 groups of families plus friends and others to come up to the mine site really doesn’t add any value to the rescue operation, and really doesn’t add any value to them either because they cant see anything other than a lot of people working very hard,” he said.
“What we have said to them is we recognise they’re sitting in an empty room not seeing any of that, so we’ve offered to take photographs of the site, photographs of the rescue operations and put it up around the walls where they’re working so they can actually have something tangible to talk about and look at the size of the operation that is going on.”
New Zealand prime minister John Key says the government will do everything it can to make sure the miners are rescued.
“Obviously this is a time of huge anxiety for the families and for the miners, so our hearts and thoughts go out to them. Again, we’ll be providing them whatever support we possibly can,” he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd says six mine rescue experts from New South Wales and a technical expert are on their way to New Zealand to assist.
He says another 12 from Queensland are also on stand-by.