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New Zealand pauses to remember miners in fatal blast

By the CNN Wire Staff
PM John Key and wife Bronagh pay respects at a memorial service for the 29 miners at Omoto Racecourse on Thursday.
PM John Key and wife Bronagh pay respects at a memorial service for the 29 miners at Omoto Racecourse on Thursday.
  • Tens of thousands attend the service
  • They cry openly as flags fly at half-staff
  • The miners died in an underground explosion
  • A government commission will look into the cause of the blast

(CNN) -- New Zealand observed two minutes of silence Thursday to remember the 29 miners killed in an underground mine explosion two weeks ago.

Tens of thousands of people attended the service at a racetrack near the Pike River mine, including Prime Minister John Key, and Pike River mine Chief Executive Officer Peter Whittall.

"New Zealanders as a whole are not an overly-religious people and are not given to public outbursts of emotion," Key said in an emotional speech. "But on Friday, November 19, 2010, when the news came through of an explosion in the Pike River mine, New Zealanders - in their own way and in a quiet way - began to pray."

Mourners cried openly as the the miners' families filed past 29 tables that displayed the names, photographs and personal belongings of the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 62.

The flags of the four countries where the miners hailed from flew at half-staff.

"We hoped that they would stick it out for as long as it took," Key said. "We hoped that, as in Chile, they would eventually emerge from the depths of the Earth to embrace their wives, parents, partners and children. Again, had circumstances given them a chance, we know the men in the Pike River mine would have done just that."

The first explosion at the mine, on New Zealand's South Island, happened on November 19. Authorities repeatedly said dangerous gas levels in the mine were too high for rescuers to enter, and two camera-bearing robots failed to find the men.

A second blast just as severe as the first happened November 24, eliminating the chance that anyone survived, said Gary Knowles, superintendent of Tasman Police command.

"How that day went so tragically wrong will now be the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry," Key said in his speech. "The Royal Commission will spend a good deal of time down here on the Coast as it seeks to answer the questions we all want answered: how and why did those 29 men die, and what can we do to prevent such a disaster ever happening again?"