New Zealand's West Coast Holds Vigil for Trapped Miners

Monday, Nov 22, 2010

Families and friends of 29 men trapped in a coal mine on New Zealand’s West Coast are waiting for the start of a rescue operation more than three days after an explosion at the pit.

Teams are drilling a 160-meter hole into the Pike River Coal Co. mine about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Greymouth on the nation’s South Island to test air quality and send down a camera. No contact has been made with the men since an explosion cut communications at about 3:50 p.m. local time on Nov. 19.

“The situation still remains grave,” Police commander Gary Knowles told a news conference today. “Every effort is being made to carry out a rescue. We remain optimistic. This is a search and recovery operation.”

Rescuers are preparing to deploy laser imaging gear, bore cameras and more efficient sampling technology once the drilling is completed, Pike River’s Chief Executive Officer Peter Whittall said in the conference. Whittall yesterday said there were signs of “combustion” that were generating a mix of gases making it unsafe to begin a rescue.

“The longer they are there, what are their chances?” said Shayne Gregg, proprietor of the Ikamatua Hotel, 17 kilometers from where a police roadblock ensures only official access to the mine. “Everyone sort of knows it’s not going to be good.”

Thoughts have turned to a blast at the Strongman coal mine, also near Greymouth, in 1967 that killed 19 men. In 1896 an explosion at a mine near the town of Brunner, which is on the road between Greymouth and the Pike River site, killed 65.

Yellow Budgie

As the vigil continues, some prefer not to talk. Staff at The Coal Face, a Greymouth restaurant featuring a yellow budgie sitting quietly in its cage and pictures of shovel-wielding miners, politely refused to comment. Elsewhere a waitress silently shook her head.

“The West Coast is soaked in mining,” Robin Kingston, assistant priest at the Holy Trinity Anglican church in Greymouth, said in an interview. “Everyone understands this tragedy. It hits hard because this is a big mining community and has had massive mining tragedies in the past.”

The wait for news on the men’s fate has prompted comparisons with the October rescue of 33 miners in Chile, brought to the surface after being trapped in a shaft more than 600 meters (1,970 feet) below the Atacama desert for 70 days.

More than 1 billion people watched live on television networks around the world, Chile’s TVN reported, as the 33 were each lifted to safety in a four-meter long capsule in the world’s longest mine rescue.

Chilean Comparisons

“Everyone is sitting, looking at New Zealand and hoping the outcome is the same as in Chile,” Prime Minister John Key told Television New Zealand today. “There has to be hope and I believe that there should be hope.”

Key said President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and many other leaders had been in touch with him to pass on their support. Key is visiting the mine site today to meet rescue workers and families.

Key told reporters in Greymouth he expects there will be a “series of inquiries” into the cause of the blast.

“We will need to ask ourselves some tough questions and we will do that in due course,” he said. Now is not that time, he added.

Questions, Inquiry

The questions are already circulating in the community, Greymouth Mayor Tony Kokshoorn told Television New Zealand

“You can feel it just rising up,” he said. “There’s a lot of questions, a lot of allegations starting. We’re talking about 29 miners here that supposedly should have been safe.”

Gregg, 43, of the Ikamatua Hotel, shares the frustrations of many who say not enough has been done to extract the 16 Pike River employees and 13 contractors ranging in age from 17 to 62. Knowles says he isn’t prepared to risk the lives of rescue workers and the trapped men until he’s sure it’s safe.

“If it was my boy, I’d grab a helicopter or something and go straight in,” said Gregg.

Ikamatua locals were “pretty cut up,” said Gregg, who worked at the mine workshop before taking over the hotel two years ago.

While not many Ikamatua residents work at the mine, the company’s loading facility is on the town’s edge where a black stack of coal is visible. Trains carrying coal regularly roll along the track running parallel to the main road that splits the town. A local engineering business relies heavily on mine work, Gregg said.

Police Checkpoint

Pike River began construction of the mine in September 2006, building its own road to the site. The police checkpoint sits at the start of that road, alongside green pastures servicing another of the region’s important industries, dairying.

The coal seam was reached in October 2008. Pike River exported its first coal in February, a year late after problems with equipment and a rock fall in a ventilation shaft in February 2009. The company went to investors for an extra NZ$41 million ($31.9 million) in March last year and NZ$50 million in April this year.

Pike River is part-owned by India’s Gujarat NRE Coke Ltd. and Saurashtra Fuels Pvt., which also take some low-ash, low- phosphorus coking coal. New Zealand Oil & Gas Ltd. is the biggest investor with a 30 percent stake and an option to take coal negotiated as part of a refinancing deal in April.

The mine was forecast to produce 320,000 to 360,000 metric tons of coal in the year through June, the company said Oct. 19. That almost halved an April forecast.

Pike River Shares

Pike River shares slumped 14 percent to 61 Australian cents in Sydney Nov. 19 before trading was halted. The company fell 4.4 percent to 88 New Zealand cents by the Wellington close. The stock has been suspended on both stock exchanges today. New Zealand Oil & Gas is also halted.

Whittall won’t comment on the mine’s future. The company doesn’t know the cause of the explosion or the extent of any damage, he told reporters as he defended the safety procedures under the ground.

Pike River follows “best practice” but “clearly, at the time of the incident there was an unsafe situation, otherwise it wouldn’t have occurred,” he said at the news conference today. “It doesn’t say the mine was operated unsafely. There must have been an unsafe situation. What that was we don’t know.”

Gas Mixture

Rescuers are monitoring levels of gases including methane, carbon dioxide and ethane, Superintendent Knowles told reporters. A 16-member team is waiting to enter the mine. An army robot is being readied to enter the shaft if conditions are suitable, he said.

Families are “distraught,” Knowles said yesterday. “They understand the things we’re facing. They understand the danger of sending people underground and causing a reaction we don’t want.”

Representatives from each family were bused to the mine site yesterday, and more will visit today. Red Cross and other social services are supporting relatives of the trapped miners, while the wider Greymouth community is waiting for news.

“We are seeing a considerable amount of pain, and deep concern,” said Reverend Kingston, whose parishioners include rescue crew members, support workers and friends of the miners’ families. “The community is looking to the church for its spiritual strength. Everyone understands tragedy. They all know the risks.”

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