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11.19.10

A New Mining Nightmare

Just six weeks after Chile's miraculous rescue, 29 miners are trapped underground in New Zealand. Constantino-Diaz Duran reports on the eerie similarities—and the life-or-death differences.

The rescue effort at a New Zealand mine that exploded Friday is on hold because workers fear there might be a second blast, since the mine is known to leak methane gas. Twenty-nine men, ranging from a 17-year old believed to be on his first shift to a 62-year-old veteran of the job, have been missing since the first explosion. Police say they are conducting tests on gases in the mine, and would not send rescuers inside until at Sunday at the earliest. "We will still look for that window of opportunity to get underground and get those men out," said the regional police commander. "We still remain positive and we believe that once that window of opportunity opens, we are ready to go."

Constantino-Diaz Duran reports on the eerie similarities between the New Zealand explosion and the miraculous rescue in Chile six weeks ago—and the life-or-death differences.

It's been a day since an explosion at the Pike River coal mine, on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, trapped 29 men in the center of a mountain, and it's been less than six weeks after the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners who set the world record for time trapped underground after a cave-in.

Like the Chilean accident, the New Zealand explosion comes on the heels of a major earthquake, which hit the South Island in early September. On Twitter, the locals have been quick to notice the parallels using the hashtag #pikeriver. "NZ is aspiring to be just like Chile: first a big earthquake, then a mining disaster," said @cescadotkay. And they're desperately hoping that, like Chile, they will have a happy ending. "We remember the Chile mine recently, that every miner got out. At the moment, we're hanging on to every hope, just like they did", said Tony Kokshoorn, mayor of Greymouth, some 28 miles from the mine.

The explosion took place at approximately 3:30 p.m. local time on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday in the U.S.), but rescue teams have not been able to access the mine due to fears of dangerous gases that might trigger a second explosion. "You don't send rescue teams underground until you are sure of the environment in which you are sending them," said Pike River Chairman John Dow to reporters gathered at the scene.

Mine operators and local authorities have tried to remain optimistic about the rescue efforts. They have been careful to warn, however, that unlike the miners trapped after the Chilean accident—which was caused by a cave-in at a gold and copper mine—the men trapped at Pike River are facing the aftermath of an explosion. This means they must cope with air pollution, low levels of oxygen, and high levels of methane and carbon dioxide.

The miners have access to special self-rescue apparatuses that provide them with oxygen, and according to a description on the U.S. Department of Labor website, "provide respiratory protection only against carbon monoxide gas for a limited period of time." The devices are located throughout the mine, but each is good for only about an hour, meaning that the rescue must be carried out as quickly as possible. In the words of Mayor Kokshoorn, "every hour that goes by, it gets more dire."

“The grief out there is unreal, they are just looking for support,” said a local mayor.

On the bright side, this is a tunnel mine, as opposed to a shaft mine, meaning that it is accessed through the side of the mountain. This is an advantage in terms of the rescue operation, because the distance that the rescuers will have to travel will be shorter than the 2,050 feet that the now-famous Chilean rescue capsule had to travel to retrieve the miners one by one.

Relatives of the 29 men have gathered at a Red Cross shelter in nearby Greymouth, anxiously waiting for information about the rescue. The miners, 16 Pike River employees and 13 contractors, range in age from 17 to 62, and include two Australians, three or four British citizens, and eight whose nationality is not known. The rest are presumably New Zealanders.

Greer McDonald: Family Torn by New Zealand Mine Disaster Greymouth is a tight-knit community with a population of under 14,000. Although the mine has only been in operation for a couple of years, Kokshoorn says the accident has touched almost everyone in town.

"I've got a young guy down there who was the West Coast's rugby league player of year last week. There's another mother whose husband is down there and they've got five children. The grief out there is unreal, they are just looking for support," said Kokshoorn in an interview with Auckland radio station NewsTalk ZB.

The west coast of New Zealand's South Island is seen as the rugged outback by the rest of the nation, but according to Kokshoorn, the outpouring of support they have received "just renews your faith in human nature." The support has ranged from promises of help by foreign dignitaries to the now-expected virtual comfort offered on social-networking sites. The Facebook page supporting the Pike River miners had attracted over 8,700 members by 8:30 p.m. ET.

Knowing that there are people across the world thinking of them is a great solace. "We're a rugged place, and we're prone to disasters and this sort of thing," said Kokshoorn. "It's the way you live your life down here, with coal mining, flooding, tornadoes. So, that's the way we live it, but it doesn't make it any easier when it happens."

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.