GREYMOUTH, New Zealand — Anguished relatives of 29 workers missing after an explosion at a New Zealand coal mine grew frustrated over delays in the rescue operation today, as officials prepared to drill a small hole through hundreds of feet of rock to test for levels of deadly gases.
Nothing has been heard from the men who were deep in the mine near Atarau on South Island when a massive blast ripped through it late Friday. A working phone line to the bottom of the mine has been ringing unanswered.
Officials insisted today they were hopeful the men were alive.
"The primary focus today is still a rescue operation," police superintendent Gary Knowles told reporters in the nearby town of Greymouth. "But it is still not safe to effect a rescue. When it's possible, we will go underground."
A 16-strong team of rescue experts have been held back from entering the mine by the buildup of poisonous gases that could generate another explosion. The gases could be coming from a coal fire smoldering deep underground.
"We've got a heating of some sort underground and that means there's some combustion generating the gases that go with that, carbon monoxide, a slight increase in methane and some other gases," said Peter Whittal, the chief executive of Pike River Mine Ltd. "Something is happening underground, but what it is we don't know."
He said experts would drill a six-inch-wide hole 500 feet into the mine to enable rescuers to sample gas levels from deep in the mine's center. The process would take up to 24 hours.
Relatives voiced frustration over the delays in the rescue operation.
"If I had my way I'd be down there, I'd go into the mine myself," said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son, Zen, is one of the missing men.
As he spoke to TV One, Drew wore his son's jacket. "I wore it so I can give it back to him when he comes out," he said, choking back tears. "I just want my boy home."