GREYMOUTH, New Zealand, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Rescuers trying to find 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine were close to breaking through with a shaft to test toxic and explosive gas levels on Tuesday, as fears grow there is little chance of finding anyone alive.
Fearing that high gas levels might trigger a secondary explosion, authorities have refused to send in rescue teams, causing emotions to boil over in the tight-knit mining town of Greymouth, where families have endured an agonising wait for news.
For the first time since the blast on Friday, officials have begun to speak openly about the possibility that men might have died in the explosion, but the head of the rescue operation said there was still reason to hope.
“If the miners were in a part of the mine that was not in the direct blast zone they might still be alive,” district police commander Gary Knowles told Radio New Zealand.
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Q+A on the delayed rescue [ID:nSGE6AL01F]
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Factbox on mining disasters: [ID:nSGE6AJ004]
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A 15 cm-wide (6 inch) shaft being drilled through 162 metres of rock close to the blast site has almost been completed, and gas monitoring, cameras and sound devices will be lowered into the main shaft.
Officials say it is possible the men could have found a pocket of clean air, and be huddling around it until help arrives, but it is unclear if they have enough food and water, beyond what they would have carried in with them for their shift.
The men’s initial emergency oxygen supplies would have lasted only up to an hour or so.
There has been no contact with the miners since the explosion at the Pike River mine, which is dug horizontally into a mountain range on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
Knowles said they would look to send a robot into the mine as well today, and that they would also consider bringing in a second robot from the United States designed to operate in extreme environments.
The mayor of Grey District said the area was desperate for some progress.
“We’re hanging our hat on some eyes getting into the mine today, especially the robot so we know where are miners are and how they are,” Tony Kokshoorn said.
Anger and frustration has been mounting over the stalled rescue, with authorities being questioned over the preparedness of a mining industry thought to be among the most safety-conscious in the world to cope with such a disaster.
“Everybody’s frustrated, everybody’s upset, everyone’s hurting,” said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is among the trapped men. But he added: “We’ve got faith that they’re going to come out.”
Special church services have been held in the town of 13,000 people, where coal is a mainstay of the local economy. School children have also put small yellow ribbons on lamp posts, and some of the shops have large messages of support in their windows.
The trapped miners at Pike River range in age from 17 to 62 and include two Britons, two Australians and a South African. Two men escaped from the mine after the blast with moderate injuries.
The isolated mine has been dug about 2.3 km (1.4 miles) into a mountain range, with the trapped men believed to be most of the way inside. There are ventilation shafts climbing vertically at least 100 metres to the surface to provide fresh air, and a compressed air line is still being pumped in. (Reporting by Gyles Beckford; editing by Balazs Koranyi)