Saturday, November 20, 2010

The 29

All eyes on the West Coast now, where 29 coal miners have been trapped over two kilometres inside a tunnel by an explosion at Pike River Mine north of Greymouth. Coming so soon after the Chilean rescue, it seems to be all too familiar a story: anxious family members at the mine entrance, officials making statements of no substance, reporters swarming to the Coast from all over the country, and everyone else with their fingers crossed, trying to imagine how it must be for the men trapped in the dark - which is the best scenario so far.

Without wishing to sound flippant, I have some idea, because last Friday I was deep inside a cave system at Charleston, also north of Greymouth, with Howie from Norwest Adventures. We spent several hours altogether getting to the cave entrance by minibus, minitrain and on foot, and then sweating through the dark togged up in thick neoprene and helmets before finally emerging along a river, floating on an inner tube and bumping over some rapids. Those inner tubes were a pain to carry as we scrambled through the tunnels, up and down steps, over boulders, squeezing through small gaps and narrow corridors, bent over when the roof lowered, and I had to remind myself frequently that I'd be glad of it in the end, and that at least I wasn't dragging a boat - completely in vain - for months through the Outback like Charles Sturt.

It was a good trip, though pretty physical, and the glow-worms at the end were spectacular, much better than at Waitomo - but the most memorable bit was when we stood in a huge open area, turned off our headlights and, at Howie's suggestion, imagined how we would cope if we'd been one of Los 33. Even knowing there were eight other people right beside me and we were doing this for fun, it was disturbing to lose sight and hearing so completely. Though in Chile they had light in their shelter, it was still a salutary experience of the isolation and vulnerability they must all have felt.

No-one at the moment has much of an idea what the conditions are for the trapped men at Pike River. All we know is that there was an explosion caused by methane gas and 29 are missing. Tense times.


the queen said...

Oh, dear. SOunds like the Sago mine disaster. That one did not turn out well.

Pam said...

It's all speculation so far - methane? coal dust? - but whichever, it could still pose a danger to the rescuers, and things are moving agonisingly slowly. There's no clue at all as to what condition the trapped men are in.


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