The first indication of trouble deep in the Pike River coal mine on New Zealand's rugged South Island came today when electricity was cut off in the mine. An electrician went down to investigate and found a loader driver about a mile down a mine shaft who'd been blown off his machine by the force of an explosion, TV New Zealand reported.
So far there's been no word from the other miners, and it's unclear whether they're trapped or if they've sought shelter somewhere deep underground, the Pike River Coal Co.'s CEO, Peter Whittall, told Bloomberg News.
"We haven't given up hope, but it's a serious situation," said Tony Kokshoorn, a local mayor. "Rescue crews are working, they are up here, doing everything they can. It's a waiting game making sure the mine is safe to go down."
The trapped miners could be as far as two miles inside the mine.
The power outage knocked out all of the mine's ventilation fans, sparking fears that toxic gases could be building up inside passageways where the miners are trapped. Crews are working to restore power to the fans, but until they succeed, it's too dangerous for rescuers to enter the mine. Emergency crews are gearing up for a rescue bid that likely won't begin until Saturday.
"They're itching to get in there and start looking for other people and a bit frustrated at having to stand and wait," police spokeswoman Barbara Dunn told the New Zealand Herald.
Relatives of the missing miners are gathering near the opening of the mine shaft, amassing a vigil reminiscent of "Camp Hope" in Chile's Atacama Desert, where relatives gathered for months near where 33 Chilean miners were trapped after a similar explosion. The Chilean miners were stuck underground for a record 69 days, emerging in a miraculous rescue last month that captivated the globe and drew new scrutiny to mine safety worldwide.
Unlike the Chilean mine, the Pine River coal mine's tunnels run horizontally into the side of a mountain rather than vertically down into the earth. So even though the trapped men are nearly two miles inside the mine, they're probably only 120 yards below the surface, Whittall told the paper.
"Every worker carried a safety rescue device at all times, including a breathing apparatus with oxygen," he said.
The key to the miners' survival will be their ability to find some kind of same haven within the mine, Mark Radomsky, director of miner training at Penn State University, told CNN.
"They need to isolate themselves and get to an area where they're not breathing toxic fumes," Radomsky said. "That's their biggest challenge right now."
Each miner carries a safety device, including a breathing apparatus with oxygen.
Still, the presence of toxic gases makes the New Zealand mine much more dangerous than the Chilean gold mine.
"This is a coal mine in New Zealand, so the hazards are greater," Radomsky said.
It's still unclear what caused the explosion, which left a smoke cloud hanging over the mine's entrance shaft. Trees in the surrounding area were charred, and a small surveillance hut was blown off a nearby hill.
The Pike River Coal Co. is 30 percent owned by New Zealand Oil and Gas Ltd., with two Indian companies -- Gujarat NRE and Saurashtra Fuels -- as substantial minority shareholders, according to Reuters.
The mine began operating only last year, and there were no indications of "heightened risk" before today's accident, Andrew Little, the national secretary of New Zealand's Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union, which represents some of the mine's workers, told Bloomberg.
"It's a reasonably new mine, and it's only been in production for a year or so," he said. "They delayed production because they weren't satisfied that the ventilation system was right, so they've been pretty careful about that."
The last major coal-mining disaster in New Zealand was in 1967, when 19 miners died in a blast at another mine in the same part of the country.
"This is going to be a very slow recovery," Kokshoorn said, according to The New Zealand Herald.