Greymouth: All 29 men missing in a New Zealand mine were presumed dead Wednesday after a “horrific” second blast tore through the colliery, plunging the country into mourning.
Police said there was now no chance of finding anyone alive, confirming the country’s worst mining accident in nearly a century and prompting anguished scenes as distraught relatives wept, shouted and collapsed to the floor.
“There was another explosion at the mine. It was extremely severe,” superintendent Gary Knowles told reporters.
“Based on expert evidence I have been given... it is our belief that no one has survived and everyone has perished.”
Knowles said the explosion, whose cause was unknown, ripped through the Pike River coal mine at 2:37 pm (0137 GMT) on Wednesday, five days after the initial blast trapped the 29 men including two Australians and two Britons.
The victims of the blasts ranged from a 17-year-old on his first shift to a 62-year-old veteran.
High levels of toxic and combustible gases had stopped rescuers entering the mine in a remote area of New Zealand’s South Island.
“I was at the mine myself when this actually occurred and the blast was horrific, just as severe as the first blast and we’re currently now moving into recovery phase,” Knowles said.
District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the incident was the “darkest hour” of New Zealand’s rugged West Coast region, a centre of the country’s burgeoning mining industry based on exports to Asia.
“It’s unbelievable. This is the West Coast’s darkest hour. It doesn’t get worse than this,” Kokshoorn said.
He added that grief-stricken families, who have suffered an agonising five-day wait for a rescue that never came, were angry that the dangerous gases had been allowed to build up again.
“They don’t know what to do. They just sobbed openly, just fell to the floor. There were people just shouting out, anger,” Kokshoorn said.
“The cause was the build-up over the last five days of the gases again and they noticed this this morning. A lethal mixture ignited the entire mine,” he added.
Energy minister Gerry Brownlee announced a series of inquiries aimed at finding out the cause of the mine disaster and preventing any repeat.
New Zealand lost 19 miners in 1967 but the last accident on this scale was in 1914, when 43 died in a gas explosion at a mine in Huntly on New Zealand’s North Island.
Stop-start rescue efforts had earlier inched forward when a bore hole into the mine finally broke through, revealing a toxic cocktail of dangerous gases with little oxygen.
A remote-controlled robot—the second such device after an earlier one broke down—also travelled about a kilometre (half-a-mile) into the mine and found the helmet of one of the only two survivors, with its headlight still lit.