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New Zealand mine explosion: 27 missing, but five miners emerge alive

A gas explosion ripped through the largest coal mine in New Zealand Friday. Rescue efforts are expected to begin shortly. Another Chilean miners rescue story?

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Pike River spokesman Dick Knapp confirmed late Friday that the mine had been rocked by a gas explosion, but said its cause was still unknown.

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Whittall said five workers had walked out of the mine two to three hours after the blast: a pair that included the machine operator who was blown off his vehicle one mile (1.5 kilometers) into the access tunnel. Three more came out later. One of the men had been able to make a call on his cell phone before reaching the surface, he said.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the situation at the mine had the potential to be very serious.

"The government has told the company it will provide any support that is required. It is an Australian company that owns the mine and the Australian government has also contacted us offering their support (and) assistance," he told reporters.

Pike River Coal is a New Zealand-registered company, but its majority owners are Australian. There are also Indian shareholders.
Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said the explosion happened at about 3:45 p.m. (0245 GMT, 9:45 p.m. EST) and the last contact with any of the miners was about half an hour later. They had not spoken to any of the missing miners during that time.

Two of the men who came to the surface were taken to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries. "They're being interviewed and we're trying to determine ... the full nature of the incident," Whittall said.

It was not immediately clear if all of those underground were together or in separate groups.

Brownlee said emergency exit tunnels were built into the mine but that he didn't know if they could be accessed by the miners.
Whittall said the horizontal mine tunnel would make the rescue effort easier than if the shaft was at a steep angle.

"We're not a deep-shafted mine so men and rescue teams can get in and out quite effectively, and they'll be able to explore the mine quite quickly," he said. "They will work throughout the night and they'll work until they can go right throughout the mine and determine the extent of the incident and the safety of our employees."

Pike River has been operating since 2008, mining a seam with 58.5 million tons of coal, the largest-known deposit of hard coking coal in New Zealand, according to its website.

Pike River says its coal preparation plant at the site is the largest and most modern in New Zealand and processes up to 1.5 million tons of raw coal a year. It is country's largest single source of coal exports.

The mine's ventilation shaft was blocked by falling rocks in early 2009, delaying mining for months.

The mine is not far from the site of one of New Zealand's worst mining disasters – an underground explosion in the state-owned Strongman Mine on Jan. 19, 1967, that killed 19 workers.
Associated Press reporter Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia, contributed to this report.

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