Around 30 workers remain unaccounted for after an explosion ripped through a coal mine in New Zealand, police and media reports said.
Emergency services were racing to the Pike River Coal Processing Plant near the town of Atarau on the west coast after police received reports of an explosion, a statement said.
Local Mayor Tony Kokshoorn told New Zealand’s National Radio that around 30 people at the mine were unaccounted for.
“It’s not good news at all,” he said. “We don’t know at what depth the explosion is but there’s certainly a big explosion. With a bit of luck, things might be OK. But there’s 25 to 30 miners unaccounted for.”
St John Ambulance service said two rescue helicopters and 10 ambulances were heading for the mine.
The mine’s management said up to 35 workers were underground when the explosion occurred, and that “two miners had come to the surface and spoken with them, saying that they had lost communication with the other miners”, local media reported.
The mine reaches some 12.3km underground and produces high grade coal for export which is used primarily in steel production.
Pike River has been operating since 2008, mining a seam that holds the largest-known deposit of hard coking coal in New Zealand, with 58.5M.t of coal in the ground, according to its website.
Pike River says its coal preparation plant at the site is the largest and most modern in New Zealand and processes up to £1.5M.t of raw coal a year.
The mine is not far from the site of one of New Zealand’s worst mining disasters – 30 miners missing after New Zealand explosion an underground explosion in the state-owned Strongman Mine on 19 January, 1967, which killed 19 workers.
Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Wittall told reporters that “the nature of the incident would appear to be an explosion”.
He said two workers had made it out of the mine, but it was not known exactly how many others were still inside.
“We’ve had our afternoon shift underground and we’ve had communications with a couple of the employees and we’ve had two men return to the surface,” Wittall said.
“They’re being interviewed and we’re trying to determine […] the full nature of the incident.
“One of the employees has said he felt an explosion underground and since then he’s walked from the mine with another employee. We have no further information at this stage.”
Police area commander John Canning said details were still sparse but initial reports suggested at least 30 people were in the mine and that they could be up to 1,500m underground.
Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said the blast happened at about 3.45pm and the last contact with any of the miners was about 4.15pm.
He said emergency exit tunnels were built into the mine but he did not know if they could be accessed by the miners.
The coal seam is about 656ft (200m) underground and is reached through a horizontal tunnel 2.3km in length. One vertical ventilation shaft rises 108m from the tunnel to the surface, according to the company’s website. This was blocked by falling rocks within the shaft in early 2009, delaying mining for months.