Fears were held last night for Hunter Valley miners working at a New Zealand coalmine devastated by an explosion yesterday afternoon that left 27 men missing underground.
While the Newcastle Herald was told one Hunter contractor with men employed at the Pike River coalmine on the south island’s west coast told families their men were safe, it was not clear whether other Hunter workers were among the missing.
‘‘We’re all hopeful it will be OK and our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of those missing, but at this time it is difficult to say anything because we just don’t know what the situation is there,’’ CFMEU northern district secretary Grahame Kelly said.
An explosion occurred within the mine about 3.30pm, and police were notified when the men failed to report an hour later.
Contractor Valley Longwall, with an office at Muswellbrook and Hunter workers on site at Pike River, was believed to have one crew of miners among the missing, although not from the Hunter.
Valley Longwall group human resources manager Ros Bailey said there were fears for three of the company’s rostered workers.
She said the concerns were for two New Zealand national contractors and a Queensland-based employee.
Chief executive Brett Lynch was still trying to gather information from the stricken mine site.
‘‘[Pike River] are a customer of ours, but we can’t confirm anything at the moment,’’ Mr Lynch said.
A Hunter-based executive flew to New Zealand after the explosion.
The Herald was told other companies including Sandvik and Lucas Drilling were believed to have had workers at the mine, which started operation last year. A spokesman for Sandvik said the company had employees at Pike River, but they were ‘‘all present and accounted for’’.
A Pike River coal worker, speaking from the mine site, said it was difficult to make any comment other than to confirm men were unaccounted for and emergency crews were already working, with more on their way.
Two miners had emerged safely from the entrance of the mine after the blast.
Police said another three were on their way to the surface, but a mine spokesman said there had been no contact with the others.
There were concerns that ventilation inside the mine shaft may be affected by a power outage.
The miners started the afternoon shift about an hour before.
‘‘We’ve had two miners who’ve walked out of the mine and they’re currently being spoken to and treated on the surface,’’ the company’s chief executive Peter Whittall said.
‘‘We’ve had no communication with anyone else underground at this stage. Every worker carried a safety rescue device at all times including a breathing apparatus with oxygen.’’
He said the men were more than two kilometres inside ‘‘but because the mine drills into the side of the mountain they were probably only 120metres below the surface.’’
Mine management originally thought 36 men were missing due to the number of tags on a staff board that had not been checked in. The figure was revised last night to 27.
‘‘Those miners have not yet been heard from,’’ police spokeswoman Barbara Dunn said.
Ms Dunn said one of the pair to emerge was a loader driver, discovered by an electrician who entered the mine to investigate the power outage about 3.50pm.
‘‘The two miners indicated three of their colleagues were also on their way to the surface,’’ she said.
The pair had been flown by rescue helicopter to Grey Base Hospital with moderate injuries.
Emergency services are at the mine’s processing plant in Atarau. St John Ambulance said six ambulances were on the scene, and three rescue helicopters had been sent.
A specialist mine rescue team is at the scene assessing how to reach the underground site of the explosion.
The mine entrance is about 2.2kilometres long, and then branches out into other areas.
The mine’s main ventilation shaft, 110metres deep, had partially collapsed in February 2009, affecting the bottom 30metres of the shaft.
Mr Whittall denied reports a body had been removed from the mine shaft.