Explosion would have left no survivors, but rescue teams not to blame says Pike River mine executive.
A huge explosion tore through a coal mine in New Zealand today, extinguishing any hope of survival for 29 miners trapped underground for five days after an earlier blast.
"Unfortunately I have to inform the public of New Zealand at 2.37pm today there was another massive explosion underground and based on that explosion no one would have survived," said police superintendent Gary Knowles, in charge of the rescue operation at the Pike River mine. "We are now going into recovery mode. I had to break the news to the family and they were extremely distraught."
Relatives who had maintained a vigil at the mine in the desperate hope their loved ones were still alive emerged from the meeting crying, with some shouting at police and reporters. Several have been critical of the apparently slow pace of rescue efforts, though rescuers stressed throughout that high levels of toxic and explosive gases within the shafts made it a hugely difficult operation.
The country's prime minister, John Key, said the second blast was "a national tragedy" and that official flags would fly at half mast and parliament adjourn as a mark of respect. "New Zealand has been devastated by the news that we have all been dreading," he told a televised press conference.
Among the presumed dead are two Britons, 40-year-old Peter Rodger, and Malcolm Campbell, 25, both originally from Scotland. The foreign secretary, William Hague, said the government had learned of the deaths "with immense sadness". Also in the mine were two Australian nationals and a South African.
The head of Pike River Coal, which runs the mine in Greymouth, on the north-west coast of New Zealand's South Island, said that it was not known precisely what caused the second blast, but he could be sure rescue teams had not done anything to cause it. "It was a natural eventuation, it could have happened on the second day, it could have happened on the third day," Peter Whittall said.
Nothing had been heard from the 29 men since the initial explosion, from which two of their colleagues escaped, but many relatives had stayed hopeful, in part because of the good safety record of the country's mining industry, with 181 deaths in 114 years before today. They were also buoyed by the rescue last month of 33 men from a Chilean copper mine after 69 days underground.
The local mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, said the families had been cheered at news that robots carrying cameras had entered a narrow shaft drilled into the section of the mine believed to contain the missing men. Police then had to inform them of the second blast. "They were screaming at them. It was absolute despair," said Kokshoorn, himself breaking down. "When the news came everyone just cracked up. People were openly weeping everywhere."
"This has got to be the darkest day for me. For Greymouth, for everywhere. This is the darkest day," he was quoted as saying by the New Zealand Herald. "Things are never going to be the same."
The father of one miner said he was not yet convinced they were all dead. "I'm still hoping there's a miracle left," Laurie Drew told TVNZ. Drew said he believed rescue teams should have gone into the mine on the night of the first blast to look for his son Zen, 21, and the others. "They had their window of opportunity that Friday night, and now the truth can't come out because no one alive will be able to come out and tell the truth about what went on down there," he said. "The only thing that's going to make matters worse is if we find out that people were alive after that first blast."
The next task is to decide how and when to recover the men's bodies from the tunnels dug more than a mile into a mountain, something the mining company promised it would do. "I still want them back," Whittall said. "Their families want them back. We want out boys back. We want them out."
One option is a process known as "gagging", in which the shafts would be flooded with carbon dioxide to extinguish any remaining fires and allow recovery teams to go in.
Earlier today, drillers finished boring a 530ft hole to the mine's main tunnel. Hot air and gas rushed through the hole when the chamber roof was punctured. Whittall said earlier that initial tests showed it was "extremely high in carbon monoxide, very high in methane and fairly low in oxygen".
An army robot had crawled two-thirds of a mile into the tunnel and found a miner's helmet with its fixed light still glowing. Officials said the helmet belonged to Russell Smith one of two miners who managed to escape the initial blast.
New Zealand's worst mining disaster was in 1896, when 65 died in a gas explosion.