Explosion at NZealand mine, 25-30 miners missing

WELLINGTON, Nov 19, 2010 (AFP) - Up to 30 miners were missing after an explosion at a New Zealand coal mine in a remote area of the country's South Island, the local mayor said Friday.

"It's not good news. (Police) say there's between 25 and 30 miners unaccounted for after a big explosion at the mine," Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told Radio New Zealand.

Police said there were reports of an explosion at the Pike River coal mine, on the South Island's rugged west coast, at about 4.30pm (0330GMT).

Pike Coal Mine

Pike River Coal's Wellington office said they were still working out what had happened.

"We are still trying to determine what has actually happened down there. All our senior management are involved in trying to find out what's happened and when we know what's happened we'll be able to release a statement and update," a company official told AFP.

Kokshoorn said that police, rescue helicopters and ambulances were rushing to the scene of the blast.

"We're just keeping our fingers crossed but it's not good," he said.

The TV3 channel quoted company officials as saying two miners had emerged from the mine but the fate of more than 30 more was unknown.

It said there was no communication with those still underground.

Locals from the nearby town of Reefton told the television station that sirens began sounding after the explosion.

Pike River's website says that the mine began production last year and has a 2.4 kilometre (1.5 mile) access tunnel running beneath the Paparoa mountain range to reach the coal seam, which took 10 years to build.

The mine produces hard coking coal for the steel industry, the site says, and made its first shipment of 20,000 tons of coal to India in February.

It is one of only a handful of underground coal mines in New Zealand, which also has some 22 open-cast mines and produces about five million tonnes of coal a year, according to the industry body.

Fairfax Media's stuff.com website said the mine had been plagued by delays before production commenced last year, including an air ventilation shaft collapse.

It said the mine was on the opposite side of the Paparoa Ranges to the scene of the 1968 Strongman mine disaster, in which 19 miners died in an explosion.

Thirty-three miners were successfully rescued last month after surviving more than two months in a tunnel 622 meters (2,041 feet) below the surface of Chile's northern Atacama desert.

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