For three days, 29 miners have been trapped underground after an explosion at a coalmine on New Zealand’s West Coast.
For three days, people in the nearby town of Greymouth have anxiously awaited news of the rescue.
For three days, they have worried.
"Greymouth is a very small community, for generations people have been mining in this town," said Phil Goff, a politician who was in Greymouth on Sunday for a briefing by rescue officials. "There won't be anyone in this town who doesn't know somebody in this mine."
"Everybody's in a state of shock and in a state of hiatus because of just not knowing what has happened down there, and that's what's agonizing,” said Andrew Little, the national secretary for the miner’s union who huddled with other miners and relatives of those trapped underground outside the Red Cross building on Sunday. “No one knows more than they did Friday night."
The explosion Friday has drawn comparisons with another mining accident in Chile earlier this fall, when 33 miners were rescued after spending two months underground. And scores of journalists have descended on the town with New Zealand media provide constant updates to the story. Everyone here follows the news closely but with rescue efforts delayed, there have been few developments.
"People are obviously really shell-shocked about what's happened, but they're supporting themselves," said Garth Elliott, 48, the area organizer for the miner's union. "That's the mining spirit,” he added. “It's a close-knit community and people are anxious, frustrated they can't do anything."
"This is a small community and we know all those guys there. If there's the slightest opportunity to go underground, we will be."
Instead, people in this small but picturesque town have come together in support of the families of the trapped miners, cooking food for the relatives and rescue workers, and gathering in the churches to pray.
Two representatives of each of their families were taken to the mine in buses on Sunday morning for a closer look at the emergency services set up there. For many it was their first time at the remote mine where a drill rig was being built to bore through the hillside and take deeper samples through a 6-inch hole roughly 100 to 150 meters deep.
• Greer McDonald: A New Zealand Family Is Torn ApartThe West Coast is one of two major mining communities in New Zealand. The Pike River coal mine is about 50 miles northeast of Greymouth and is in a steep mountainous area. Officials have had to ship over pieces of the drill and build it on site. Once that the drill has been built, it will take at least 16 hours of continuous drilling through hard rock to access the air in the mine and test the gases further down, said officials.
Methane gas naturally builds up in coalmines, and officials are worried dangerous levels of the gases will put rescuers in danger or further endanger the lives of miners already underground. Officials are also worried that the mine, which continues to vent off gases over the hillsides, might have an ongoing fire below the surface.
Rescue officials have already been taking gas samples every half hour to determine whether gas levels were safe enough for rescuers to enter the mine, said Peter Whittall, Pike River Coal Ltd.'s chief executive officer.
Trevor Watts, general manager of New Zealand Mines Rescue, said that 30 men are ready to go into the mine when it’s deemed safe, with each rescuer wearing about up to 20 pounds of equipment and having to walk roughly a mile on an uphill gradient through the tunnel to the mine.
"This is not like walking down to the local supermarket," Watts said.
The country has received an outpouring of international support, with rescuers and specialized equipment sent over from Australia, the U.S. and Chile. Air New Zealand, meanwhile, has been offering cheap flights for family members. Of the 29 miners, 24 are Kiwis, two are Australians, two are Britons and one is a South African.
"This is a small community and we know all those guys there,” said Watts. “If there's the slightest opportunity to go underground, we will be."
He added: "A whole lot of them are our brothers."
Tami Abdollah is a freelance writer who has written for the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.