GREYMOUTH, New Zealand — The explosion that left 29 miners missing in New Zealand was a series of bangs that pelted debris and made it a struggle to breathe, said a coal cutter who lost consciousness but eventually walked out of the tunnel with minor injuries.
Toxic gases after Friday’s explosion still prevented rescuers from entering the mine Sunday, and evidence of heat underground was concerning officials, who feared there could be another blast.
“Something is happening underground, but what it is we don’t know,” said Peter Whittall, chief executive of Pike River Mine Ltd.
Fresh air was being pumped down an open air line, but gas levels were still fluctuating so much late Sunday that waiting rescue teams were forbidden to enter the mine near Atarau on South Island.
A 15-centimetre-wide hole was being drilled from the mountain above down 150 metres to the mine to assess air quality and to lower listening devices.
The missing miners have not been heard from since the blast but officials insist the search for them is a rescue operation. The drill was expected to reach the mine wall overnight.
New Zealand’s mining sector is generally safe.
In China — which has the world’s deadliest mines — water flooded a small coal mine Sunday, trapping 28 workers, officials said. Thirteen workers escaped and rescue work continued for the missing men.
At the Pike River Mine, survivor Russell Smith was an hour late for work Friday and so was not deep in the mine with those missing. He and fellow survivor Daniel Rockhouse walked out of the tunnel more than an hour after the explosion.
Smith told New Zealand’s TV3 news that he was driving a loader into the mine when he saw a flash in front of him.
“It wasn’t just a bang, finish, it just kept coming, kept coming, kept coming, so I crouched down as low as I could in the seat and tried to get behind this metal door, to stop getting pelted with all this debris,” Smith said.
“I remember struggling for breath. I thought at the time it was gas, but … it was dust, stone dust, I just couldn’t breathe. And that’s the last I remember,” he said.
Rockhouse pulled him to safety, and when he regained consciousness the two took at least an hour to walk out of the dust-choked tunnel.
Both were treated at a hospital for minor injuries.
“I could have easily been blown to bits,” Smith said, acknowledging he was lucky to have survived.
He said he couldn’t help worrying about his colleagues still underground.
“There’s a lot of young guys down there. A lot of people waiting,” he said. “Whether they’re still alive or dead or … in an air pocket, you just don’t know, because we’re not too sure where the explosion was.”
Anguished relatives of the 29 missing miners were given a tour of the site Sunday in order to better understand the situation, but the emotional trip did little to allay their concerns.
“It was good to see the layout of the place, but it’s still hard,” said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is missing. “We just want to be there when they walk out.”
Police have said the miners, aged 17 to 62, are believed to be about two kilometres down the main tunnel.
“Teams are on standby and at the first opportunity, day or night, they’re going to go down in there,” police superintendent Gary Knowles, the rescue controller, told Sky News television.
He could not say how long a rescue operation would take, given the unstable gas levels.
Officials believe the blast was most likely caused by coal gas igniting. An electricity failure shortly before the explosion may have caused ventilation problems that let gas build up.
The miners’ union said Sunday there had been no previous safety issues at the mine.
“As far as I know, there had been pretty standard procedures in place and nothing … that would have pointed to a potential risk was raised by workers,” Andrew Littlew, spokesman for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, told reporters.
The coal seam at the mine is reached through a 2.3-kilometre horizontal tunnel into the mountain. The seam lies about 200 metres beneath the surface. The vertical ventilation shaft rises 108 metres from the tunnel to the surface.
Whittall said the horizontal tunnel would make any rescue easier than a steep-angled shaft, once safety is established.
Each miner carried 30 minutes of oxygen, and more stored in the mine could allow several days of survival.
A total of 181 people have been killed in New Zealand’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.
Australian and British citizens were among the missing men, and Australia sent a team of mine rescue experts to assist the operation.
The Pike River coal mine differs from the Chilean gold and copper mine where 33 men were rescued after being trapped 69 days. Methane gas was not a concern at the Chilean mine, but its only access shaft was blocked, while the Pike River mine has two exits.