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New Zealand mourns 29 perished coal miners

A pall of gloom hung over this small New Zealand town on Thursday as the government promised an independent inquiry to try to answer what caused the country's worst mining disaster in nearly 70 years.
A combination of undated pictures released by New Zealand Police shows 27 of the 29 miners trapped inside the Pike River Coal mine
A combination of pictures released by the New Zealand Police shows 27 of the 29 miners believed killed inside the Pike River Coal mine. Ho / REUTERS
/ Source: news services

A pall of gloom hung over this small New Zealand town on Thursday as the government promised an independent inquiry to try to answer what caused the country's worst mining disaster in nearly 70 years.

Flags flew at half-staff under grey skies in Greymouth on the rugged west coast of the South Island in memory of the 29 miners trapped nearly a week ago, who police said would not have survived a second explosion in the Pike River Coal mine on Wednesday.

"The country is unified in its grief and hopefully it will give some comfort to the families that have been left behind," Prime Minister John Key told Radio New Zealand, adding that an independent inquiry would be held in addition to probes by the police, the Labor Department and Pike River Coal.

"We need answers to what happened at Pike River. We owe it to those families," he said.

The 29 miners were trapped in the 1.4-mile main tunnel last Friday night when methane gas caused a massive explosion in the mountain. Two other miners working away from the coal face narrowly escaped and walked out of the mine.

On Wednesday, rescue teams had been readying to enter the mine and were reviewing deadly gas levels that had stopped them entering earlier when the second gas explosion occurred.

The miners' relatives had pleaded for rescue teams to enter the mine to find their husbands and sons.

There had been no contact with the trapped men, and robots and electronic devices used to explore the mine found no signs that any had survived the initial blast.

Image: Aerial view of the drilling rig at Pike River Coal Mine, Greymouth, New Zealand,
epa02463172 Aerial view of the drilling rig at Pike River Coal Mine, Greymouth, New Zealand, Nov. 23, 2010. Twenty nine men have been trapped underground since 19 November when a methane explosion ripped through the mine on the South Island. EPA/STR POOLAAP

The mayor of the Grey District said the disaster was the region's "worst hour," but families needed to retrieve the bodies of the miners.

"We'll get someone down that mine, we'll get those bodies back because these people won't have closure," said Tony Kokshoorn.

The Pike River mine, on the sparsely populated west coast of the South Island, is close to the site of New Zealand's worst mining disaster, where 65 miners were killed by gas in the Brunner coal mine in 1896.

The father of one of those killed, who had been outspoken about the way the rescue effort was handled, said he would not rest until he got answers.

"I'll make sure of doesn't matter how long it takes, I'll get the truth," said Laurie Drew, father of 21-year-old miner Zen.

Around 200 people, including one of the survivors, miners' families and the mine company's senior executives, attended a church service on Wednesday night to mourn.

The scale of the disaster, the greatest loss of life from one event in the country of about four million since the Wahine inter-island ferry sank more than forty years ago, is reverberating across the nation.

The New Zealand stock exchange said the market would open five minutes late as a mark of respect for the disaster.

Authorities are believed to be looking at pumping inert gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the mine to put out any fires before making any attempt to recover the bodies.

Key declared the disaster a national tragedy.

Wednesday's news followed the release of video footage showing the huge power of the initial methane-fueled blast.

Both blasts were believed to have been caused by explosive, toxic gases swirling in the tunnels dug up to 1½ miles into a mountain that 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.

The second blast came hours after the first progress in days for the rescue attempt, when a drilling team broke a narrow shaft through to the section of the mine where the missing workers were believed to have been. And two robots crawled their way into the tunnel, giving authorities their first view of the inside of the mine.

But officials had become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of pulling the men alive from the mine. Nothing had been heard from them since the initial blast.

Officials said investigations still to come would confirm the exact cause of Wednesday's explosion.

Pike River Coal Chief Executive Peter Whittall said rescue teams were not doing anything that could have set it off, and conditions inside the mine were such it could have happened at any time.

"It was a natural eventuation," he said, "it could have happened on the second day, it could have happened on the third day."

Laurie Drew, father of 21-year-old miner Zen, said rescuers should have gone into the mine on Friday. He believes the first explosion would have burned off most of the dangerous gases.

"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," Drew said. "The only thing that's going to make matters worse is if we find ... out that people were alive after that first blast."

Police superintendent Gary Knowles said at all times after the initial blast, entering the mine was simply too risky because of high gas levels and evidence of a smoldering coal fire underground that could have been the ignition source.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said a range of official inquiries would probe the cause of the disaster and whether it could have been prevented.