GREYMOUTH, New Zealand (AP) — Flags hung at half-staff, churchgoers gathered at special services and lawmakers broke into a solemn hymn in Parliament on Thursday, as New Zealanders mourned 29 men killed in the nation’s worst mining disaster in decades.
A huge gas-fueled explosion deep underground Wednesday ended hopes of rescuing the miners, who were caught in a similar blast five days earlier.
Recovery teams were prevented from entering the mine by high levels of potentially explosive methane and other toxic gases still filling the mine’s tunnels, and officials said it could be weeks or months before the victims’ bodies could be removed and returned to their grieving families.
Mine operators said Thursday they were determined to bring out the men’s bodies.
“I still want them back and their families want them back and we’ll be doing everything we can to make that happen. My love and support are with those guys,” said Peter Whittall, the CEO of Pike River Coal.
But testing showed gas levels surged again soon after Wednesday’s explosion and another blast was possible. Methane was leaking from the coal seam, and a smoldering fire somewhere in the mine was producing other toxic gas and a potential ignition source, officials say.
Mining experts planned to expel oxygen from the mine, which could fuel a further explosion. One option was to pump inert gas into the mine to push the oxygen out, another was to seal the mine up to stifle any burning then enter when it was safe, Whittall said.
The recovery effort could take weeks, he said.
Prime Minister John Key said previous experience overseas suggests the operation could take months.
Key met again with victims’ relatives Thursday, and promised them a thorough investigation.
“They have accepted that their loved ones are gone — but they want answers,” Key told reporters.
Flags flew at half-staff across New Zealand, and special church services were held for people wanting to show respect for the miners. Another mining company, Solid Energy, suspended operations at two underground mines for the day in a show of respect.
In Parliament in the capital Wellington, lawmakers wearing black suspended debate to offer condolences. After passing a motion marking the tragedy, the politicians sang the Christian hymn “How Great Thou Art” in the chamber.
It emerged Thursday that a rescue team was readying to go into the mine on Wednesday for the first time shortly before the second blast. A team was in full gear and ready to begin searching when gas levels suddenly spiked and the mission was called off. The explosion followed soon after, with no warning.
“She was all go” for the rescue effort, said Geoff Valli, whose brother Keith was among those killed. “They explained just how close they were to going in. It was bloody scary. It could have been so much worse,” he told National Radio.
Laurie Drew, whose son Zen died in the mine, said the families wanted their loved ones’ remains to help grieve.
“Hopefully it doesn’t drag on too long to get the closure that all the families really need,” he said.
A series of inquiries, including a formal Commission of Inquiry and police and coroner’s investigations, are being launched into the mining disaster, one of New Zealand’s worst.
New Zealand’s mining industry is small and generally considered safe. The tragedy deeply shocked the country and devastated families who — buoyed by the survival tale of Chile’s 33 buried miners — had clung to hope that their relatives could emerge alive.
The country has had 210 deaths in 114 years in mines. New Zealand’s worst mine disaster was in 1896, when 65 died in a gas explosion at a mine on the same coal seam as the latest tragedy. The most recent was in 1967, when an explosion killed 19 miners in a mine near the Pike River site. A fire in a mine in 1914 killed 43.
Lilley reported from Wellington, New Zealand.