New blast makes mission more difficult

20:23, Nov 28 2010

Smoke and flames were last night billowing from the Pike River coalmine, with police admitting it is unrealistic to think the bodies of 29 miners will be recovered intact.

A fourth, more violent explosion rocked the mine yesterday shortly before 2pm, sparking a huge coal fire. The blast damaged a ventilation shaft, and flames could be seen coming through it from the air "like a Bunsen burner." Some vegetation near the shaft also caught fire and had to be put out.

The explosion came after Prime Minister John Key said the future of underground coalmining in New Zealand rested on the findings of a royal commission of inquiry into the Pike River tragedy.

Experts working to retrieve the bodies of the men, trapped since November 19, now have two options to get recovery teams into the mine.

A jet engine device – the Gorniczy Agregat Gasniczy (GAG) – is at the site ready to deploy. But experts need to determine if it can be used after last night's fire.

The mine could be temporarily sealed to starve the fire of oxygen.

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Inspector Mark Harrison, who is heading the recovery operation, admitted it was less likely the bodies would now be removed intact.

"There's no time that could be put around this," he said. "We are gathering and assessing the information ... there's been a change in the environment within the mine and we need to know ... what that actually means."

Pike River Coal Chief executive Peter Whittall said families had been asking if they could get their men home by Christmas. A second explosion on Wednesday dashed any hopes the men would be found alive.

It could be some weeks before the bodies were returned, he said.

"I made the point then without being too blunt, Christmas is another `X' on the page as far as what the rescue teams are working towards. They've got to look at the actual time it takes them to do their job."

He added: "These last few days and the last couple of explosions have exacerbated the issue and probably pushed things out."

Whittall saw the smoke and flames when he flew over the mine yesterday afternoon and could smell coal smoke.

The GAG machine is his preferred option and would most likely be deployed in the evening. Sealing the mine (without using the GAG machine) would take longer, he said.

Using the GAG machine could take a number of days, New South Wales Mine Rescue Service general manager Paul Healey told Radio New Zealand.

The procedure would see gas or vapour pumped into the mine for at least three days before it is sealed and left to cool. The cooling of the mine could take some time, he said.

Key said yesterday that police may bring charges after investigations are complete.

Whittall said this was an inevitable possibility. "I understand that ... when the investigation comes out if someone's done something wrong then there should be consequences to that. I am not confident one way or the other."

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the ventilation shaft was "sheared off" and blown to one side.

Families were "drained."

"They are subdued, they just want closure, they just want their loved ones back."

Lawrie Drew, father of Zen Drew, 21, said he was concerned his son would never be returned.

"Realistically we know no more than last Friday," Drew said. "All we know is they've missed quite a few opportunities to go in there and all we've got is everybody speculating."

COAL MINING FUTURE 'RESTS ON INQUIRY'

The future of underground coalmining in New Zealand rests on the findings of a royal commission of inquiry into the Pike River tragedy, Key says.

He will take a proposal to Cabinet today for an inquiry into the disaster.

Yesterday he said there were "very hard questions to be asked and answered".

"In the end, the future of Pike River and actually underground coalmining in New Zealand rests on this," Key told TVNZ's Q+A programme. "We can't put people into environments that are dangerous."

The royal commission would be led by a judge and two others. Its work would be carried out in addition to inquiries by the coroner's office, the Labour Department and the police.

There would probably be "an international component" to the commission, which would in turn draw on international and local expertise and have "absolute powers" to subpoena witnesses, gather information, and ask questions.

The terms of reference for the commission would be "very broad", Key said.

There are four underground coalmines in New Zealand, involving 450 workers.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman said the inquiry should report in two parts, with the second looking at broader questions about the underground mining industry as a whole.

"There have been many questions raised about whether the regulatory framework is strong enough," Norman said.

The first part of the inquiry should focus on the specific cause of the explosion at Pike River to help provide closure for the victims' families.

"Part two would focus on the related issue of the broader safety and regulation of underground mining and could take longer to report back."

Norman said the royal commission should include a workers' representative.

Key said he could not speculate on the future of the Pike River mine.

"What I do know is it's claimed the lives of 29 men. They should be home with their families and they're not, and I owe it to those families to make sure that they get answers to those questions, and I'm determined to do that."

The Press