Hopes wane at NZ mine; gas prevents rescue of 29

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GREYMOUTH: Hopes waned Monday for the survival of 29 New Zealand coal miners who have been trapped for three days underground, where the presence of explosive gases has prevented a rescue.
Family members expressed frustration with the pace of the response as officials acknowledged for the first time it may be too late to save the miners, who have not been heard from since a massive explosion ripped through the Pike River Mine on the country’s South Island on Friday.
A buildup of methane gas is the suspected cause of the explosion, though officials say that may not be confirmed for days. And now the presence of that gas and others – some of them believed to be coming from a smoldering fire deep underground – are delaying a rescue over fears they could still explode.
“Everybody’s frustrated, everybody’s upset,” said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is among the missing. “I have my moments I can keep it together but deep down my heart’s bleeding like everybody else’s.”
Authorities are working on drilling a 500-foot-long, six-inch-wide (160-meter-long, 15-centimeter-wide) shaft into the mine tunnel to get a better idea of the air quality in areas where miners were believed trapped by the blast.
Officials will also feed a very high-resolution laser camera down the hole to give rescuers their first sight of conditions – and potentially the men inside, said John Dow, the chairman of Pike River Coal Ltd., the mine owner.
Once the question of air quality is resolved, rescuers hope to send a bomb-disposal robot into the mine. Army specialists were at the mine site Monday fitting the robot with a camera and up to 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) of fiber optic cable so it could take video of conditions in the tunnel. The battery-operated robot can only operate in fresh air, and so cannot be sent into the mine until the air clears.
Also, checks were under way to make sure the robot would not cause a spark or anything else that could ignite flammable gases inside. “We still remain optimistic, we’re still keeping an open mind,” police superintendent Gary Knowles told reporters.
“But we are planning for all outcomes, and as part of this process we’re planning for the possible loss of life as a result of what’s occurred underground.”
Two workers stumbled out of the mine within hours of Friday’s explosion, but there has been no contact at all with the missing 29. A phone line deep inside the mine has rung unanswered for days.