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New Zealand disaster mine burns

30 November 2010, 11:29

Wellington - Coal inside a New Zealand mine where the bodies of 29 victims of one of country's worst industrial disasters remain has caught fire and could burn for weeks, a senior official said on Tuesday.

The fire is the latest setback to family members and rescuers waiting to retrieve the bodies from the Pike River Coal mine on South Island.

The mine was rocked by an explosion on November 19, trapping the 29 men. A second major explosion five days later dashed hopes any of the workers had survived.

There have since been two more explosions - with one on Sunday shooting flames into the air and blowing a giant extractor fan from the top of the main ventilation shaft.

Pike River mine chief executive Peter Whittall said on Tuesday that flames were leaping out of the ventilation shaft. He said loose coal was definitely burning and possibly the coal seam near the bottom of the pit.

"Seeing the smoke and getting the gases we're getting is just indicative of coal being on fire, so I don't doubt with the large explosions we've had, that a lot of roof coal would be dislodged so there would be loose coal burning," he told reporters.

Recovery crews hope to start a jet engine late on Tuesday to blow inert gases and water vapour into the blazing mine to kill the fire and clear out the explosive gases. It could take weeks to complete the task.

Prime Minister John Key announced on Monday that a Royal Commission of Inquiry will investigate the disaster and an international mine safety expert will carry out an urgent safety audit of New Zealand's four other underground coal mines.

A national memorial service for the lost workers was to be held on Thursday in the nearby town of Greymouth.



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