Greymouth's spirit strong as hopes fade

Prime Minister John Key with Pike River Coal's CEO Peter Whittall.
Prime Minister John Key with Pike River Coal's CEO Peter Whittall.

A New South Wales rescue expert flown in to assist with the desperate bid to save 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine has told of the "slow and frustrating" process.

There has been no communication with the men since Friday's gas explosion at the Pike River colliery.

NSW Mines Rescue general manager Paul Healey said on Sunday it was a frustrating wait as a borehole is drilled to an area where the men are expected to be located.

Mr Healey explained that risk assessments would hold up rescue efforts with protocols insisting that all data "must be understood and within acceptable range before proceeding".

"This is sometimes a slow and frustrating process, but experience has shown that it is necessary," he said.

"Rescue teams are equipped and ready to start as soon as a green light for acceptable risks is given by the incident controller."

NSW Mines Rescue Group, a division of Coal Services Australia, is working closely with New Zealand incident command, which is overseeing the rescue effort at Pike River.

Seamus Devlin, NSW Mines Rescue state manager, and David Connell, manager of Hunter Valley Mines Rescue Station, have flown to New Zealand to help with incident planning while an additional eight local rescue specialists travelled to Christchurch to be on standby.

As the families of the trapped men on Sunday made their first visit to the mine since the explosion, thousands of people crammed into churches in the Grey District on the West Coast to express their support and pray.

The missing include 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African. Relatives of the foreign nationals are flying to New Zealand.



A Pike River employee who trained many of the miners trapped underground by Friday's explosion believes there is little chance of the men being found alive.

"I've been in the mining industry 33 years and I've never seen anything like it," he told the Sunday Star-Times.

Although he was trying to stay positive, hope was fading. "We're all gutted – the waiting is hard." But Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall is refusing to give up hope the men will be recovered alive. "You don't work in mining unless you're an optimist."

The constant drizzle in Greymouth throughout the day yesterday was a fitting accompaniment to the sombre mood prevailing in the town as people waited to hear news of their loved ones.

Tai Poutini Polytechnic, itself hit by tragedy in 1993 when a group of its students was killed when a viewing platform at Cave Creek collapsed, was among the first to rally behind Pike River Coal and the families of the trapped men.

A group of catering students who graduated on Friday was back at the campus at 5am yesterday cooking food for the families who had gathered in a makeshift crisis centre across the road.

Throughout the day family members came and went, some in tears, others still with brave faces. None wanted to speak to the media.

Pike River workers were also at the crisis centre to hear regular updates from police on how the operation to find their mates was going.

Media from throughout Australia and New Zealand descended on Greymouth, eager for any glimmer of information about the trapped men, two of whom are Australian and three British.

No names have been officially released but one is believed to be a brother of 24-year-old Daniel Rockhouse, one of two miners who made it out of the mine after Friday afternoon's explosion.

Also known to be among the trapped is Grey district councillor Milton Osborne, talented league player Blair Sims, and local publican's son Michael Monk. At a press conference yesterday Whittall said it was an agonising time for the missing miners' families and friends, who were desperate to know their fate.

"It is very, very difficult. All we can tell them is exactly what we know and what we're doing," he said. "We've giving assurances we're doing everything we can and that the emergency services are up there and working as hard as they can.

"The mining industry is full of camaraderie and they know well the people who are working on this are doing their utmost to rescue their friends and colleagues."

Police Superintendent Gary Knowles said offers of help with the rescue had been coming in from around the world and every resource was being made available to the rescue team.

But as search commander he was not prepared to put people on the ground until he was sure it was a safe environment. "We're still looking for that window of opportunity to get underground and get these guys out," Knowles said. "We still remain positive and we believe that once that window of opportunity opens, we're ready to go.

"The guys at the scene have been focusing on getting their equipment ready and going through the drills looking at the various risks they will face underground and preparing for the search," Knowles said. They were all experienced miners who were desperate to bring their mates home.

Prime Minister John Key, who flew into Greymouth yesterday afternoon, said the government was offering all the support it could. "This is a time of huge anxiety and concern for the families and our hearts and thoughts go out to them. We'll provide them with all the support we possibly can."

Key said the government had received expressions of support from various overseas governments: "Prince William personally sent me an email to say his heart and thoughts go out to the miners."

Sunday Star Times