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New Zealand Mine Disaster Leaves Nation Mourning

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The close-knit community of Greymouth is struggling through its darkest hour in the wake of a second mine explosion that has left no hope of survival for 29 men trapped underground.

Rescuers had struggled for five days to reach the men who were trapped on Friday after a blast at the Pike River Mine on New Zealand's South Island.

Authorities say the latest explosion, around 2:30pm local time, has left no hope for the men.

Those presumed dead include Australians William Joynson, 49, and Joshua Ufer, 25, who are both from Queensland.

The families of victims sobbed as they left the mine this afternoon after holding a vigil that had become increasingly bleak.

•NZ Cabinet likely to set up inquiry on Monday;
•Government flags to fly at half mast;
•Still no details on recovery of bodies;
•NZ PM says search and rescue workers were close to going down mine before second blast.

New Zealand prime minister John Key has held a press conference and described this afternoon's events as a national tragedy.

"New Zealand is a small country, a country where we are our brothers' keepers, so to lose this many brothers at once strikes an agonising blow," he said.

"We are a nation in mourning."

He says New Zealand is standing shoulder to shoulder with the families who have lost loved ones.

"On behalf of the people of New Zealand, we send our sympathy to the children who have lost fathers, parents who have lost sons, the wives who have lost husbands, girlfriends who have lost partners, siblings who have lost brothers," he said.

"Let us also acknowledge Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom have lost men in this tragedy as well."

Mr Key says flags will fly at half mast in New Zealand tomorrow and that he expects a national memorial service to be held at some stage.

The prime minister also paid tribute to the rescue teams who had been trying to reach the miners.

"From the moment of first explosion they have spent every waking hour tirelessly working, searching for a way to bring these men home alive," he said.

But he says questions will now be asked about how such a tragedy could occur, flagging an official commission of inquiry into the disaster.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn says families have directed some anger at police, but for now they are trying to console each other.

"This is the West Coast's darkest hour. It doesn't get worse than this," he said.

Some of the miners' relatives had to be taken away in an ambulance after hearing the news.

Lawrie Drew, the father of 21-year-old Zen who was trapped in the mine, says families thought they were about to get some good news.

"Well we thought they were going in for a rescue mobilisation and we got told to hush up and then they told us a second explosion took place," he said.

"That's when people got up and started yelling abuse, saying 'you had the window of opportunity five days ago, why didn't you take it?'."

Body recovery

The search and rescue effort has now turned into a recovery mission and authorities are grappling with how to get the bodies of the 29 men out of the mine.

Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall says dangerous gasses and the possibility of further explosions still pose too much of a risk to send more men underground.

"The question now is what next?" he said.

"I still want [the miners] back and their families want them back, but the mine is just as unsafe now as it was two hours ago."

Mr Whittall says today's explosion was the result of a build-up of gas and was not due to any action from rescuers.

"I am absolutely confident the measures taken up there by the rescue teams and men up on site were correct and absolutely nothing done up there could have caused this," he said.

"Gas had been building up. It is a natural thing that could have happened on the second day or the third day. It just happened today."

Anger and grief

Mr Whittall has also requested that media respect the privacy of those grieving.

Families of the victims had become increasingly frustrated with the pace of the rescue effort.

Since last Friday it had been deemed too dangerous to send a rescue team down the mine because of the presence of noxious gas and the risk of underground fires.

Three robots had been sent to the site, including one from Western Australia, to help with the rescue and earlier today one of them uncovered a miner's helmet with its light still on.

It is believed to belong to one of the two men who walked out of the mine shaft following Friday's blast.

Authorities had also managed to get a camera down to an area where there were reserves of oxygen, however it showed no signs of life.

Mine safety expert David Feickert says the presence of carbon monoxide is probably what killed the men, not the latest explosion.

"The chances are that the men became unconscious with carbon monoxide earlier on and they wouldn't have been affected by this explosion," he said.

Condolences

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also offered condolences to the families of victims, particularly the families of the two Australian miners.

"Our hearts go out to them, and on behalf of Australian people I give the condolences of this nation," she said.

"To those families, we especially say we want you to have our condolences and we want you to understand that the nation is grieving with you at this dreadful time."

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has offered her condolences.

"This is a terrible circumstance that's unfolding in NZ. Our thoughts are with the families, particularly with the young Queenslanders who are involved.

"What's happening in New Zealand is a good reminder that mining, particularly coal mining, can be a very unsafe business and we've all got to make efforts to improve wherever we can."

Stephen Smythe from the CFMEU says mine workers across Queensland are feeling the pain of all the families involved.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends at such a tragic and terrible time," he said.

"From the union's perspective, in Queensland alone if there's anything we can do to assist their families then we're on hand to help."


Reported by ABC News

EasyOHS Moderator:

No words can convey our sympanthy for the families of this terrible disaster. 

Regards

EasyOHS Team

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