WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> New Zealand held a national remembrance service Thursday for 29 coal miners killed in an explosion last month, with a line of 29 black-draped tables each bearing a fallen miner’s helmet, lamp and name serving as the centerpiece.
Pike River mine was rocked by an explosion Nov. 19, trapping the 29 miners. A second major blast five days later dashed hopes any of the workers had survived, and the men’s bodies have still not been recovered.
Two more explosions have occurred since, including one Sunday that shot flames into the air, signaling a raging underground coal fire that continues to burn.
More than 10,000 mourners attended the somber open-air service for the dead miners under a sunny sky Thursday at Greymouth’s Omoto Racecourse on South Island. People paused for a two-minute silence before the service to remember the dead men. Flags flew at half-staff on government buildings nationwide.
Victims’ families placed photos, tributes and personal items — including clothing, a rugby ball, surfboards, a guitar and a cricket bat — alongside the miners’ helmets on the tables.
Men, women and children, many weeping, filed quietly past the tables to pay their respects.
“In a very real sense, those men are with us because of those tables,” Rev. Tim Mora, who led the service, told the silent crowd.
Grieving father Lawrie Drew said he would not feel a sense of closure until his son Zen’s body was recovered. “It’s not closure for me. Not until I see the body,” he told the Stuff news website ahead of the service.
Prime Minister John Key said the nation’s 4 million people were standing behind the region’s tight-knit community.
“We hoped … they’d emerge from the depths of the Earth,” he told the mourners. “But they never came home.”
Recovery teams started a jet engine known as the “gag” machine overnight Wednesday, blowing inert gases and water vapor into the burning mine to quench the fire raging since Sunday.
Police Superintendent Gary Knowles told reporters once the explosive gases are expelled, work will begin to cool soaring temperatures inside the mine to allow for the recovery of the 29 bodies. However, mine experts have warned it would be a slow process, he said.
Foreign diplomats, including high commissioners from Australia, Britain and South Africa — who lost nationals in the disaster — were also at the service.