The Associated Press reports that a gas explosion has left 27 miners, including both company employees and local contractors, missing within one of New Zealand’s largest coal mines. If the miners survived the blast, they may be trapped inside, recalling the recent drama in Chile. The earlier incident had a happy ending broadcast around the world, as an incredible rescue effort brought 33 trapped miners safely home after 69 days underground. Emergency crews from New Zealand are already working with the Pike River Coal company to locate and retrieve miners who survived this new explosion, and the Australian government has also offered to assist. Five workers have emerged alive from the mine since the explosion.
Mining is a vital, but perilous, activity. The New Zealand mine is a tunnel nearly a mile and a half long, created to access a massive coal seam. The current theory is that a power failure knocked out the ventilation system, causing explosive methane gas to build up until the detonation occurred. Rescue workers must carefully test air quality for presence of more gas pockets before they can proceed into the mine. Meanwhile, any trapped workers would have about half an hour to reach oxygen stores before their personal oxygen supplies ran out.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports 65 people killed in coal mining accidents over the past 10 years in the United States alone, plus three rescue workers who died while responding to a Utah mine collapse in 2007. Most of these fatalities occurred after gas explosions, similar to the incident in New Zealand. Individual injuries and fatalities are often caused when the unstable ground within the mines collapses.
Coal mining is not, however, the most dangerous job, at least not in America. The Daily Beast looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics figures back in April, and concluded coal mining was only number 8 on the list. The most dangerous job is commercial fishing, with 129 fatalities per 100,000 workers, compared to only 22 for coal miners. Of course, mining disasters are spectacular and horrible, taking many lives at once and drawing sustained media attention, so they loom large in the popular imagination.
Miracles were worked by the rescue teams who brought those Chilean miners to the surface, and by the miners themselves, who demonstrated incredible courage and discipline to survive for months in a hellish environment. Let us hope everyone involved in the New Zealand incident studied the lessons of Chile carefully, and their story has an equally happy ending.