New Zealand paused for a two-minute silence today to remember the 29 Pike River miners presumed killed by explosions at a West Coast mine last month.
Prime Minister John Key asked the country to observe a moment of silence at 2 p.m. local time which marked the start of a remembrance service near Greymouth, the South Island town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Pike River. The service was held at the Omoto Racecourse which opened in 1867, almost 20 years after coal was first discovered in the area.
Pike River Coal Ltd., the mine’s owner, is yet to determine what caused an explosion on Nov. 19 that cut off communication with the workers underground. Police declared them to be dead five days later after a second explosion ended all hopes of a rescue. Rescuers are now trying to douse a coal fire caused by a fourth blast that’s prevented recovery of the miners’ bodies. They ranged in age from 17 to 62.
“Your men were our men,” Key said at the service. “And even if many of us know them only as names, and faces and stories, their deaths touched our lives.”
Messages of support from around the world were read by Anand Satyanand, New Zealand’s Governor-General. They included notes from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The service was attended by government officials from New Zealand and outside the country, including Martin Ferguson, Australia’s minister of resources and energy, and British High Commissioner Victoria Treadell, according to a statement.
Key said on Nov. 29 that a Royal Commission will probe the causes of the Pike River blasts. A separate enquiry will conduct a safety audit of New Zealand’s underground coal mines. While the mines will stay open during the audit, Pike River is likely to stay closed for some time, he said.
“What happened at Pike River has become a fresh, new, raw part of the story of New Zealand,” Key said at the service.
Rescuers deployed a jet engine at around 10 p.m. yesterday in an attempt to extinguish the Pike River fire, according to a police statement today. The operation will continue until air sampling indicates the mine is inert, the statement said.
“We have a long way to go before the environment will be safe enough to send a recovery team into the mine,” Superintendent Gary Knowles said in the statement.