Greymouth: New Zealand paused for two minutes` silence Thursday as a sombre remembrance service honoured 29 men killed in the country`s worst mine disaster for almost a century.
More than 11,000 people, including Prime Minister John Key, gathered at the base of the Paparoa mountain range, where the Pike River colliery is located, to pay their respects to the dead.
"This afternoon, as we gather here, our nation Aotearoa New Zealand gathers to stand with us," local priest Tim Mora told the service at Greymouth`s Omoto racetrack, referring to the indigenous Maori name for the country.
The centrepiece of the nationally-televised service was 29 tables, each bearing a miner`s helmet and lamp surrounded by mementos of the dead men placed by their families.
"We can see their faces, we can see their hobbies, their loved ones, their interests, it`s all there. They are not just names now -- they`re people," Mora said.
The miners were trapped by a November 19 explosion of methane at the colliery on the South Island`s remote west coast and confirmed dead when another blast hit five days later.
Mora said the disaster had scarred the close-knit community but it had been buoyed by the international outpouring of support for families of the victims, who included two Australians, two Britons and a South African.
Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, who became the face of the tragedy as he held public briefings on attempts to reach the miners, paid tribute to their families and the emergency crews.
But he acknowledged there was unfinished business as the miners remained entombed in the pit, which remains too dangerous to enter, and vowed "to bring them home".
"Our men are still in the mine and the mine is still holding us out," he said.
"We`re fighting to win the battle with science, with courage, with tenacity and sheer bloody determination."