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Robot sent into New Zealand mine breaks down

Efforts to rescue 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine suffered yet another setback on Tuesday after a robot sent into the main shaft broke down, adding to agonizing delays as hopes for survivors faded.
Families leave a briefing on the 29 miners and contractors trapped in the Pike River Mine, in Greymouth, New Zealand on Tuesday, Nov. 23. The bid to rescue the coal miners ran into more problems on Tuesday.Ross Setford / AP
/ Source: news services

Efforts to rescue 29 men trapped in a New Zealand coal mine suffered yet another setback on Tuesday after a robot sent into the main shaft broke down, adding to agonizing delays as hopes for survivors faded.

Rescuers have not entered the mine, dug into the side of a mountain range, since an explosion ripped through the colliery on Friday afternoon, fearing that it is now a smoldering powder keg of combustible gases, ready to explode again at any time.

With the break-down of the robot, family and friends vented their frustration with rescue officials with emotional outbursts, as they remained in an excruciating wait for rescuers to complete more tests of air quality before they could finally enter.

"The families are showing grief, frustration and probably anger," 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."

'Serious situation'
"This is a very serious situation and the longer it goes on, hopes fade," police district commander Gary Knowles said, admitting there had been outbursts from family members when told of the latest setback. "We have to be realistic."

There has been no contact with the miners since Friday's explosion at the Pike River mine, on the rugged west coast of New Zealand's South Island. Aged 17 to 62, they each carried only an emergency supply of up to an hour's oxygen, and only the food and water they would have taken in with them for their shift.

Officials have said it is possible the men could have found a pocket of clean air, and be huddling around it, but that possibility has looked increasingly remote as every day passes without any rescuers being able to enter the mine.

A 15 cm-wide (6 inch) shaft is being drilled through 162 meters of rock, aiming to break through to the main shaft close to the blast site, so rescuers can monitor air quality and deploy cameras and sound devices to check for signs of life.

The hole is expected to take several more hours to complete.

Authorities have ruled out re-using the current robot, which became wet and short-circuited 550 meters (1,804 ft) along the main shaft, still about 1 km from the suspected site of the original explosion of naturally occurring methane gas.

"I won't send people in to recover a robot if their lives are in danger," Knowles said. "Toxicity is still too unstable to send rescue teams in."

No tapping detected
They are now using seismic devices, which would detect if any survivors were trying to signal to rescuers by tapping on the rock. So far, no tapping has been detected.

Anger and frustration has been mounting over the stalled rescue, with authorities being questioned over the preparedness of a mining industry thought to be among the most safety-conscious in the world to cope with such a disaster.

Special church services have been held in the town of 13,000 people, where coal is a mainstay of the local economy.

School children have also tied small yellow ribbons on lamp posts, as a symbol of hope, and some of the shops have large messages of support displayed in their windows.

The trapped miners include two Britons, two Australians and a South African. Two men escaped from the mine after the blast with moderate injuries but were unable to help rescuers pinpoint where the other men were likely to be trapped.

The isolated mine has been dug about 2.3 km (1.4 miles) into a mountain range, with the trapped men believed to be most of the way inside. There are ventilation shafts climbing vertically at least 100 meters to the surface to provide fresh air, and a compressed air line is still being pumped in.

Those trapped include a teenager who was so excited about his new job he persuaded mine bosses to let him start his first shift three days early — on the day of the deadly gas explosion — his mother told local media.

Joseph Dunbar was one day past his 17th birthday and the youngest among them when he joined his fellow miners in the pit.

Mine shift supervisor Gary Campbell said Dunbar was desperate to be part of the team.

His mother, Philippa Timms, said her son "got offered this chance to have a career — and that's how he saw it, as a career," she told TV One.

The wait to begin the rescue bid for the men had been frustrating, but Timms said she understood why.

"They can't just rush in there because, I know right from the word go, I know how it works," she said. "If the oxygen rushes in and it hits that methane, then bam, they're gone, (in) another blast."

Police have said the miners, aged 17 to 62, are believed to be about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) down the tunnel.

Each miner carried 30 minutes of oxygen, and more fresh air was stored in the mine, along with food and water that could allow them to survive for several days, officials say.

New Zealand's mines are generally safe. A total of 181 people have been killed in the country's mines in 114 years. The worst disaster was in March 1896, when 65 died in a gas explosion. Friday's explosion occurred in the same coal seam.