Fears Pike River coal seam could be burning
By Patrick Gower
The chances of recovering the bodies of 29 miners from the Pike River coal mine look slimmer today, with the operation to put out the fire in the mine suffering a major setback.
"The analogy I'd give is it's like a Bunsen burner," says CEO Peter Whittall. "There's a fire at the bottom of the shaft."
A fourth explosion yesterday has set coal in the mine alight.
"I flew over it myself, it was very different," says Mr Whittall. "The analogy I used is it smelt like Greymouth on a cool morning where you get that coal smoke."
It could be loose coal in the mine, but even worse, the entire seam of coal could be alight.
"The worst-case scenario, if you like, is that the walls of the mine, which are coal, could start to burn. That's a lot harder to dig out, a lot harder to smother, because it just sits there like when you shut a fire in overnight, with the old coal ranges. They just sit there and virtually do nothing.
"You open up the air and they start again."
So while the families were told the gag machinery was ready to go, the worsening fire means it might not be usable, and the mine would instead be temporarily sealed to try and starve the fire of oxygen.
And all this takes time, so Mr Whittall has informed the families the bodies may not be out by Christmas.
"It's become longer, not shorter."
The latest explosion was violent enough to blow away the steel structure on top of the shaft and set bushes alight.
The police were asked if the fire lessened the chances of the bodies being recovered intact. Inspector Mark Harrison gave a one word answer: "Yes."
He then left without taking further questions.