Hope turned to horror for families of New Zealand mine victims

Associated Press
Thursday, November 25, 2010

GREYMOUTH, NEW ZEALAND - Elation over a possible rescue attempt quickly turned to anguish for the families of 29 New Zealand miners missing underground since last week when a second powerful blast ended any hope for another mine miracle.

Wednesday's massive explosion deep inside the mine on New Zealand's South Island came five days after the men were caught underground by a similar blast. Even in the unlikely event that any had survived the first one, police said none could have lived through the second.

"The blast was prolific," said police superintendent Gary Knowles, in charge of the rescue operation. "Just as severe as the first blast."

Still, as families gathered for their daily briefing on the rescue operation's progress, they hoped for the best. Before he could finish telling them about the latest blast, some broke into applause when Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall said a team had been getting ready to go underground - thinking that a rescue was about to start.

"I had to wait till they stopped clapping to tell them . . . that the second explosion occurred," Whittall said.

Some relatives collapsed. Others shouted at the police in anger.

Prime Minister John Key declared the disaster a national tragedy.

Both blasts were believed to have been caused by explosive, toxic gases swirling in the tunnels dug up to 1½ miles into the mountain. The gases had also prevented rescuers from entering the mine to search for the missing. Officials said the second blast could not have been prevented and was not a result of any of the rescue activities.

It was one of New Zealand's worst mining disasters. The country's industry is relatively small compared with other nations' and considered generally safe, with 210 deaths in 114 years after the most recent tragedy.

It devastated families who, buoyed by the survival tale of Chile's 33 buried miners, had clung to hope for more than five days that their relatives could emerge alive.

Key said that flags would fly at half staff Thursday and that Parliament would adjourn its session out of respect for the dead men.


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