Explosion hits NZ mine; up to 30 workers missing
Friday, November 19, 2021 1:23 AM

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(Source: Associated Press/AP Online)By RAY LILLEY

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - An explosion ripped through a coal mine in New Zealand on Friday and around 30 workers were unaccounted for, police and the mining company said.

Emergency services were racing to the Pike River Coal Processing Plant near the town of Atarau on the west coast, police said in a statement.

Local Mayor Tony Kokshoorn told New Zealand's National Radio that up to 30 people at the mine were unaccounted for.

"It's not good news at all," Kokshoorn 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."

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," he said.

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 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) underground.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said the blast happened at about 3:45 p.m. and the last contact with any of the miners was about 4:15 p.m.

Brownlee said emergency exit tunnels were built into the mine but that he didn't know if they could be accessed by the miners.

St. John Ambulance service said two rescue helicopters and 10 ambulances were heading for the mine.

The coal seam is about 200 meters underground and is reached through a horizontal tunnel 1.43 miles (2.3 kilometers) in length. One vertical ventilation shaft rises 354 feet (108 meters) 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.

Pike River has been operating since 2008, mining a seam with 58.5 million tons of coal, the largest-known deposit of hard coking coal in New Zealand, 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 1.5 million tons of raw coal a year.

The mine is not far from the site of one of New Zealand's worst mining disasters - an underground explosion in the state-owned Strongman Mine on Jan. 19, 1967, that killed 19 workers.

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