GREYMOUTH, New Zealand (Reuters) - Efforts to rescue 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine suffered yet another setback on Tuesday after a robot sent into the main shaft broke down, adding to agonizing delays as hopes for survivors faded.
Rescuers have not entered the mine, dug into the side of a mountain range, since an explosion ripped through the colliery on Friday afternoon, fearing that it is now a smoldering powder keg of combustible gases, ready to explode again at any time.
With the break-down of the robot, family and friends vented their frustration with rescue officials with emotional outbursts, as they remained in an excruciating wait for rescuers to complete more tests of air quality before they could finally enter.
“This is a very serious situation and the longer it goes on, hopes fade,” police district commander Gary Knowles said, admitting there had been outbursts from family members when told of the latest setback. “We have to be realistic.”
There has been no contact with the miners since Friday’s explosion at the Pike River mine, on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Aged 17 to 62, they each carried only an emergency supply of up to an hour’s oxygen, and only the food and water they would have taken in with them for their shift.
Officials have said it is possible the men could have found a pocket of clean air, and be huddling around it, but that possibility has looked increasingly remote as every day passes without any rescuers being able to enter the mine.
A 15 cm-wide (6 inch) shaft is being drilled through 162 meters of rock, aiming to break through to the main shaft close to the blast site, so rescuers can monitor air quality and deploy cameras and sound devices to check for signs of life.
The hole is expected to take several more hours to complete.
Authorities have ruled out re-using the current robot, which became wet and short-circuited 550 meters (1,804 ft) along the main shaft, still about 1 km from the suspected site of the original explosion of naturally occurring methane gas.
They are now using seismic devices, which would detect if any survivors were trying to signal to rescuers by tapping on the rock. So far, no tapping has been detected.
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.
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 tied small yellow ribbons on lamp posts, as a symbol of hope, and some of the shops have large messages of support displayed in their windows.
The trapped miners include two Britons, two Australians and a South African. Two men escaped from the mine after the blast with moderate injuries but were unable to help rescuers pinpoint where the other men were likely to be trapped.
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 meters to the surface to provide fresh air, and a compressed air line is still being pumped in.
Additional reporting by Adrian Bathgate; Editing by Mark Bendeich