NZ mine disaster ... a nation grieves

FOR five days a wave of grief had been held at bay by the sustaining power of hope in the small mining communities around Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Built by hour and day against the dictates of reason, the constraint of facts about explosions and the realities of fire and gas, hope was all relatives and friends of the 29 miners had.

Then, in one raw moment all hope was dashed.

A second explosion at the Pike River mine, bigger and uglier than the first, ripped through the mine yesterday afternoon. Perhaps the 29 men were already dead; certainly, they are now. The mine, not a hole in the ground but a living, breathing beast, had roared again.

At 2.37 pm, when the Pike River chief executive, Peter Whittall, was at the mine, smoke started spewing from the main shaft. ''In my subjective opinion it was larger and stronger and lasted longer and it was not what I wanted to see,'' he said.

News travels fast in small communities but at 4pm the families and relatives of the 29 missing men walked into the rescue briefing in a Greymouth hall completely ignorant of what had happened. The briefing began as these briefings had for days, with technical talk of bore holes and robots.

''It got started as normal and there was quite a lot of optimism because of the fact the robots were getting down there,'' the Grey District mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, said.

Then the news. A second explosion, news itself powerful enough to bring people to the floor, sobbing. Whittall told them: ''There was an enormous explosion. There's no way anyone could have survived it.''

Anger rose quickly; the police, who some believed had frustrated rescue efforts with an over-cautious approach, were the first target.

But love and comfort won out. ''We just started consoling each other,'' Kokshoorn said. ''But there were some distraught people.

''This is the west coast's darkest hour, I'm telling you. It doesn't get worse than this.

It's just devastation. They don't know what to do. They just sobbed openly and just fell to the floor.''

The police superintendent Gary Knowles also witnessed the explosion. ''I was at the mine myself when this occurred and the blast was horrific,'' he said. ''It is our belief that no one has survived and that everyone will have perished.''

He then had to face the relatives. ''I had to break to news to the families and they are extremely distraught,'' he said. ''This is one of the most tragic things I have had to do as a police officer.''

For five days families and relatives had formed an increasingly stern and sombre parade passed the gathered media on their in and out of twice-daily briefings. They went in sombre again yesterday but left weeping and heartbroken.

''It's just blown up. That's it: they're all dead,'' Lawrie Drew, father of Zen, 21, said. ''It blew up again.''

Drew was one of several relatives whose frustration had boiled with the pace of the rescue process. Mining folklore says the moments after an explosion are the safest time to enter a mine but no teams were allowed in.

A robot was put down the tunnel and promptly broke down when water dripped from the mine roof and, with the hours ticking by, a search began for another. Safety was paramount.

But not all feel that way. Neville Rockhouse has borne more suffering this week than any man should have to. The mine's safety and training manager, he had two sons - both of whom he had found work for at Pike River - down the mine on Friday.

Daniel, 24, was one of only two men to survive the first blast. After that miraculous escape came the news that night that Neville's father had died from a heart attack. Then yesterday, even more grieving: Ben, 21, was never coming home.

Rockhouse was the first man to reach Whittall after the news was announced. ''He gave me a big hug and said, 'We did everything we could,' '' the mine manager revealed.

Some will still cling to hope and perhaps recalculate the chances of an even bigger miracle of survival. Whittall refused to rule it out even as the focus switched to recovering the bodies.

''My team are going to have to start assessing tonight, what next?'' he said.

''What do we do with the mine? Regardless of what's happened, if the men are no longer alive, which is most likely, I still want them back and the families want them back and we'll be doing everything we can to make that happen.''

But another explosion remains a distinct possibility. The mine is still not safe, methane is being released and fire continues. The combustive possibilities remain.

David Bell, a University of Canterbury expert in engineering and mining geology said the methane levels had made a second explosion ''almost inevitable''. Fire and methane remain in the closed confines of the mine and even retrieving the bodies could take weeks or months.

Hope died swiftly, but the grieving will go on a long time.

''They'd all held out hope that is was their son or their husband or their brother that would be the lucky one. They've all held that hope out, but I'd have to say they are all feeling that hope is now gone.'' Whittall said.

''They've got a terrible, terrible thing to deal with now.''

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