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Search delayed for 29 men in mine

New Zealanders fear gas buildup, another explosion

By Ray Lilley
Associated Press / November 20, 2010

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Search efforts for 29 workers missing after a powerful blast tore through a coal mine in New Zealand were stalled today over fears that a buildup of dangerous gas could trigger a second underground explosion.

Repeated attempts to contact the 16 employees and 13 contract miners after yesterday’s explosion at the Pike River mine have failed, and it was not known whether the men were still alive, said Peter Whittall, chief executive of Pike River Mine Ltd. The blast was probably caused by coal gas igniting, he said.

Two dazed and slightly injured miners stumbled to the surface hours after the blast shot up the mine’s 354-foot-long ventilation shaft. Video from the scene showed blackened trees and light smoke billowing from the top of the mountain where the mine is located, near Atarau on New Zealand’s South Island.

The search controller, police Superintendent Gary Knowles, said they were still waiting for air test results from the mine before search teams can be sent in.

It could be days before it is safe enough for special teams to enter the mine, said Tony Kokshoorn, mayor of nearby Greymouth.

The missing miners would have to deal with numerous hazards, including air pollution, high levels of methane and carbon dioxide, and low levels of oxygen, he said. Each miner carried 30 minutes of oxygen, enough to reach oxygen stores in the mine that would allow them to survive for “several days,’’ said John Dow, the chairman of Pike River.

Unlike the Chilean mine accident in which 33 men were rescued from a gold and copper mine last month after being trapped a half-mile underground for 69 days, Pike River officials have to worry about the presence of methane, mine safety expert David Feickert said.

Electricity went out shortly before yesterday’s explosion and that failure may have caused ventilation problems and contributed to a buildup of gas. The outage continued to frustrate efforts today to pump in fresh air for rescuers.

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