Underground fire halts New Zealand mine rescue bid

There has been no contact with the 29 since an explosion at mine on Friday.

Last Updated: Nov 21, 2010, 09:06 AM IST

Greymouth: The chances of rescuing alive 29 trapped men trapped in a New Zealand mine became more remote on Sunday as tests showed a fire burning underground and it remained unsafe for rescuers to enter.

Although officials said they were still focusing on a rescue operation at the Pike River colliery, they added they were being realistic with the information they passed on to the families of the missing men.

Arrangements were being made to fly relatives of the five foreign nationals among the 29 to New Zealand as the news became grimmer and people packed churches to pray for a miracle.

"Samples we took do indicate that we`ve got a heating of some sort underground, that means that there`s some combustion of material generating the gases that go with that," Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said.

There has been no contact with the missing men since an explosion at the mine on Friday and Whittall said "it`s still not at a point where it`s safe for rescue teams to enter the mine".

Police commander Gary Knowles said rescuers were holding out hope that the miners had survived.

The miners had access to water, but not food, and compressed air was being pumped into the mine although it was not known if it was reaching areas were the miners were.

"We are still focusing on a rescue operation, I would like to get underground and get these guys out," Knowles told reporters.

Tearful family members, who had been kept away from the disaster site since Friday`s explosion, were taken to the scene for a two-hour visit on Sunday to view the rescue preparations.

"The families are at a stage where I think they are looking at all the options and between us we are giving them best advice we can," Knowles said.

He described the chances of survival as "the six million dollar question. We`re looking at every possible outcome of this operation and we`re still remaining positive".

Churches in the tight-knit West Coast region were crammed on Sunday.

"People still have faint hope for a miracle. All we can do is pray for those underground and their families," said Catholic priest Monsignor Gerry O`Connor in the main town of Greymouth, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the isolated mine.

Bureau Report