Rescuers wait on final all-clear to enter mine

AMY GLASS, GILES BROWN AND ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 15:24 20/11/2010
DANIEL TOBIN The Press

Press reporter Giles Brown has a quick chat with the chairman of Pike River Coal John Dow. By Daniel Tobin

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Pike River Coal mine
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax Media Zoom
SHOCK: Shortly after family members were told of the second explosion at the Pike River mine.

SlideshowPike River coal mine


View Pike River coal mine in a larger map
Milton Osborne
MILTON OSBORNE: One of the miners missing after the explosion at the Pike River coal mine.
A shot of a blown out ventilation system above the mine.
DAMAGE: A shot of a blown out ventilation system above the mine. PHOTO: TVNZ

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More details of the missing miners have emerged as police wait until it is safe to begin the rescue operation.

Twenty-nine men are trapped at the Pike River Coal mine on the West Coast following an explosion yesterday afternoon.

Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn today named two of the missing - local councillor Milton Osborne and rugby league representative Blair Sims - and said a father-of-five and a hotelier's son were also trapped. 

He said one of the miners had five young children, while another was the son of a local hotelier.


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He said Osborne was a contractor at the Pike River mine.

The mayor said he had been speaking to Osborne's wife, who was with other family members waiting for news at an area up the road closer to the mine entrance.

Sims was a regular player in the centre or on the wing for West Coast.

Peter Kerridge, chairman of the West Coast Rugby League Association, said Sims was one of its "star players''.

Sims received the West Coast Player of the Year Award the last two years running, as well as being picked for the newly established South Island team this year.
 
"When you see the scenes of the blast above the ventilation system it's worry. We are just as keen to get information as anyone. Rugby draws its players from the mining industry and so I wouldn't be surprised if there are more affected,'' he said.

Superintendent Gary Knowles, the Tasman Police District Commander who is leading the rescue effort, told a press conference this afternoon that rescuers were ready to go as soon as the environment changes.

Safety was "paramount" to the rescue operation. "We're not going to put 16 men underground and risk their lives," he said.

"We don't work on gut feelings. We work on facts … it's a case of safety first. I'm an eternal optimist that we are going to go down there and find these guys and bring them out."

Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said air quality tests from this morning were inconclusive with no trends visible yet as not enough samples had been done to be conclusive. Levels of methane, ethane and carbon monoxide were being tested.

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The miner's families and loved ones have been updated and it was a very trying time for them, he said.

Prime Minister John Key said everything was being done to bring the men out of the mine. "This is a time of huge anxiety and concern for the families and the miners, so our hearts and thoughts go out to them."

Prince William had sent an email of support for the trapped miners, he said.

"It's a difficult time for everyone but we are determined to get the men out."

Kokshoorn said, just after midday, that 20 rescue staff were preparing to enter the mine "immediately" after three of the four gas tests taken came back clear.

"This is a delicate situation, but this is fantastic news and we've just got to hope we come out with a fantastic result."

However, just after 1pm police released a statement saying rescuers were yet to receive the results from the latest testing of vents at the scene.

Until the results had been received no timeframe would given as to when the rescue would start.

Whittall said that 29 men were still in the mine after the explosion yesterday afternoon, not 27 as previously reported.

The youngest, a mine assistant, was 17 and the oldest 62. Sixteen were staff and 13 contractors. The majority were New Zealanders, but there were also Australians and Britons in the group.

Local councillor Milton Osborne and rugby league representative Blair Sims - and said a father-of-five and a hotelier's son were also trapped, Kokshoorn said.

Knowles was determined all the men would be rescued.

"This is a search and rescue operation and we're going to bring these guys home."

He said earlier that the "environment remained unstable" and he wasn't going to send anyone into the mine until they were sure it was stable.

Knowles said specialist gas testing equipment had been flown in from Australia this morning.

Whittall said he had hired every man at the mine and knew them all - talking to their families was extremely tough.

The only damage they knew about was that which could be seen to a ventilation shaft above the mine. There was no indication the mine had collapsed.

Whittall said the mine had safe areas where the men could have got to and they were also equipped with breathing apparatus and other emergency equipment.

The men could be within several hundred metres of each other and he hoped they were sitting at the end of fresh air vents in the mine waiting to be rescued.

Air ventilation into the mine was being monitored and they were trying to get accurate gas samples. Methane remained a concern for the rescuers.

Whittall said time estimates on getting clear gas samples were dependent on the weather and terrain.

If the weather did not clear it could take up to eight hours.

Knowles said the miners' families had gathered together at a Red Cross centre set up in Greymouth and were staying a very tight knit group. They did not want to talk to the media and were being updated by police on an hourly basis.

Two men, Russell Smith, 50, and Daniel Rockhouse, 24, fled to the surface following the explosion, and were treated for moderate injuries at Grey Base Hospital about 50kms away.

Canterbury District Health Board chief executive David Meates said both men were discharged this morning and were asking for the media to give them privacy.

Whittall said he was hoping to visit the men soon.

When they emerged they indicated three more workers were on their way out but there has been no sign of them.

COMMUNITY PULLS TOGETHER

Kokshoorn said briefing the families was ''heart-wrenching''.

''You wouldn't believe the grief that's there. The whole town has come to a standstill. We are just trying to work it through. I can't stress to you how emotional this is. This is the toughest thing I've ever gone through.''

He knew all of the miners personally.

''It's a hopeless situation. You want to help but you can't. You just want to run down the mine and see if everyone's all right.

He said the community was pulling together and had had messages of support from across the world.

‘'It is one of those things we know it can happen, it hasn't happened  for over 40 years... when we lost 19 miners. But we are hanging on to hope 'til someone tells us otherwise.

GAS TO BLAME

Whittall said the men who emerged on Friday had moderate injuries and were treated at Grey Hospital. Police described the men as "walking and talking".

Rockhouse, a loader driver, was reportedly discovered by Smith, an electrician who entered the mine to investigate a power outage at 3.50pm.

It is understood they emerged from a secondary service shaft. The mine entrance is about 2.2km long and then branches out into sub areas.

Mine management originally thought 36 men were missing, a number based on the number of tags on staff board at lamps which had not been checked in.

A company spokesman said on Friday that gas was the likely cause of the blast.

West Coast area commander Inspector John Canning said the men were at least 1500 metres underground.

Police were notified an hour after the men failed to report, at 4.30pm, as was the practice in such emergencies.

Canning said mine rescue were called in immediately.

SUPPORTING FAMILIES

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union national secretary Andrew Little said it was an "incredibly anxious'' time for the miners' families.

"We've got a [union] organiser over there who is with families. The only thing we can do is provide support, which is what we are doing at this point,'' he said.

Robin Kingston, archdeacon of the Greymouth and Kumara Anglican Church, said many of the church's parishioners were involved directly or indirectly with the Pike River Mine

"There is a significant amount of nervousness around at the moment. People have been asking for prayers for those they know who are not accounted for as yet."

Kingston said the community was worried, but not panicking.

"We are a community that has gone through many, many crises. Some worked out okay, and some were absolutely disastrous. We tend not to jump to conclusions and wait to see," he said.

"If it is disastrous, well, we will handle it well. We tend not to panic until we know for sure."

Prime Minister John Key, in Greymouth for a flying visit, earlier said: "Our heart and thoughts go out to the miners and their families… we will do anything humanly possible to aid the miners and to rescue them."

Key said Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had been in contact to assure him Australian resources would be made available to New Zealand as soon as possible.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee, who has travelled to Greymouth with Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson, said his main concern was for the families who were worried about their loved ones.

Labour Leader Phil Goff said he was also praying for the trapped miners.

THE MINE

The Pike River Mine is on the opposite side of the Paparoa Ranges from the now closed Strongman State Mine where 19 miners died in an explosion in 1967. A total of 140 people are employed around the mine site.

The mine has been beset by delay, most particularly the collapse of an air ventilation shaft when it was close to opening for production.

The mine is the source of high grade coal used in steel production, most particularly for the Indian market.

Pike River Coal was listed on the New Zealand and Australian Stock Exchanges in July 2007 and has been in the NZX Top 50 listed companies since July 2008.

It has three major shareholders: cornerstone shareholder New Zealand Oil & Gas Limited (30 percent), and Indian customers Gujarat NRE Limited (7 percent) and Saurashtra World Holdings Private Limited (6 percent).

It now has almost 350 million shares on issue, currently held by more than 8,000 shareholders, and a market capitalisation of NZ$400 million in mid-2009.

- The Press

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