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New Zealand remembers dead miners with national service

world Updated: Dec 02, 2010 13:06 IST

New Zealanders observed a two-minute silence on Thursday at the start of a remembrance service to honour 29 men who died in a gas explosion at a coal mine last month.

More than 10,000 people attended the service at a racetrack near Greymouth, near the Pike River mine on the west coast of the South Island.

The 85-minute service, which took place in brilliant sunshine in sight of the Paparoa mountain range where the bodies of the men remain entombed, was broadcast live on national television and radio.

Twenty-nine tables stood in front of the grandstand, each decorated with a miner's helmet and lamp and bearing the names of the 16 miners and 13 contractors, aged from 17 to 62, who died after an explosion rocked the Pike River mine Nov 19.

Relatives adorned each table with personal mementoes of the lost men, including photographs, a surfboard, rugby jerseys and balls, bottles of alcohol, teddy bears and miniature cars.

Flags of New Zealand, Australia, Britain and South Africa, the miners' home countries, flew at half mast.

At the end of the service, Pike River colleagues and dignitaries filed past the tables, placing ferns - local symbols of grief - and small rocks to pay their own respects to the dead.

Pike River Coal Ltd chief executive Peter Whittall paid tribute to his "29 lost mates" still trapped in a mine on fire and filled with toxic gases.

He pledged that the company would continue to use "science, courage, tenacity and sheer bloody determination" to make the mine safe enough to recover the bodies to return them their families.

Local mayor Tony Kokshoorn referred to past mine tragedies in the region and said, "Once more on this rugged coast fate has had the final say."

Prime Minister John Key made a personal comment to mothers fearful for their children growing up without a father.

"Because I was such a child, I know that the absence of a parent is a heaviness you learn to carry in your own way," he said.

"It is a terrible thing to happen. But it doesn't mean your children will not go on to live happy, worthwhile and fulfilling lives and, in time, experience joyfulness and love in new families, yet to be created.

"And even if those children's memories of their fathers fade, his legacy will live on in each one of them."

Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand read messages of sympathy from around the world, including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Prince William and other leaders.