Police and mine rescue crews in New Zealand have acknowledged for the first time that the 29 miners trapped underground since an explosion on Friday may not have survived.
Police superintendent Gary Knowles said today that rescuers were keeping an open mind.
However, he added: “But we are planning for all outcomes and, as part of this process, we’re planning for the possible loss of life as a result of what’s occurred underground.”
Toxic gases have prevented rescuers from entering the mine, near Atarau on South Island, and there has been no contact with the missing men.
Drilling of a small shaft into the mine to test dangerous gas levels was expected to be completed later today, and experts were preparing a military robot to enter the mine and take pictures.
The robot will be able to provide pictures and gas samples up to 1,500m into the mine’s main tunnel. Knowles said that would give rescuers an idea of how safe the route is and whether they can enter themselves.
Police have said the miners, aged 17 to 62, are believed to be about 2km down the tunnel.
Each miner carried 30 minutes of oxygen, and more stored in the mine, along with food and water, could allow several days of survival.
The mine is entered through a 2.3km horizontal tunnel into the mountain, and the coal seam lies about 200m beneath the surface.
Officials believe the blast was most likely caused by coal gas igniting. An electricity failure shortly before the explosion may have caused ventilation problems which let gas build up.
The miners’ union said 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 Little, spokesman for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, told reporters.
Australian and British citizens were among the missing men, and Australia sent a team of mine rescue experts to assist the operation.
The two-year-old Pike River mine is working the largest-known deposit of hard coking coal in New Zealand – about 58.5M.t.
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.
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.