Wellington: An explosion rocked a remote coal mine in New Zealand on Friday, trapping 27 people underground, the company said.
Rescue teams were preparing to go into the new Pike River coal mine dug into the side of a mountain range in the country`s rugged South Island, but were checking for gas, which would build up because of lack of ventilation.
"Going into a mine after the power`s been off for two or three hours requires mines` rescue people to make sure it`s safe for them before they look for our people," Pike River`s chairman, John Dow, told reporters.
The mine, which only began shipping coal this year, is burrowing into a deposit which, according to one recent visitor, was relatively gaseous.
Two men had come out of the mine and were being treated in hospital for moderate injuries. They had told authorities that another three were making their way out.
Police said they did not know of any deaths, as had been reported by some media.
"There are no confirmed fatalities," a police spokeswoman told Reuters.
Peter Whittall, chief executive of the mining company said he believed 27 people, a mix of miners and external contractors, were trapped.
"Whether they are trapped or choosing to stay underground and shelter from whatever the extent of the incident is we don`t know at this stage," Whittall told Television 3.
The mine`s main tunnel is more than two kms into a mountain range, but only around 150 meters deep, which is seen as an advantage because it will make it easier to use heavy equipment. The area is so remote that mobile-phone service is patchy.
The company produces hard coking coal used in the steel industry and has been hit by a series of technical problems, including rock falls, which delayed its development.
Greymouth district`s deputy mayor, Doug Truman, told Reuters by phone he had visited the mine and understood the coal deposit to be gaseous, but he stressed safety standards there were high and the workers highly trained.
"It`s a very high-quality coal but it`s gaseous -- but they know that," Truman said.
The company said each miner carried safety equipment, including personal oxygen cylinders.
The company is around 30 percent owned by listed energy company NZ Oil and Gas Ltd with two Indian companies -- Gujarat NRE and Saurashtra Fuels -- as substantial minority shareholders.
The last major coal mining disaster in New Zealand was in 1967 when 19 miners were killed in an explosion at a coal mine in the same part of the country, a major coal-producing region.