KUCHING - A rescuer who entered the Selantik coal mine has described it like "entering a grave" and that it reminded him of the tunnels built by the Viet Cong.
"As it got deeper, it got a lot narrower. When you enter, you could walk upright but just tens of metres in, the tunnel starts closing in. You have to crouch, then crawl," said Kana Tawi, 27, who was among a five-member Hazardous Material (Hazmat) team sent in after Saturday's blast.
"It made me think of the tunnels dug by the Viet Cong as hideouts. I saw those images on Discovery Channel. That night, I felt like I was in the same type of place," he said.
Kana said the tunnel's network was elaborate with sections that resembled dining areas, connected via narrow passages.
"It was like entering a grave," he told The Star yesterday.
The Hazmat team was sent there to assess its safety before forensic investigators could move in.
The team's decision was to seal the tunnels for now, which means no one else will see the aftermath of the blast just yet.
"The level of methane was too high. We had to exit after exploring for an hour," Kana said. "We only went past a few hundred metres."
There were no photographs of the blast site yet because "the camera's flash could ignite the air," he explained, adding that their job was to observe and judge safety levels.
Kana said the sides of the tunnels were supported by planks of wood and the top was held up by metal sheets.
"There were vertical steel bars to keep the tunnels intact.
"It was very, very slippery and the ground was muddy," he said.
Team members wore about 30kg of safety gear - comprising blast-proof suits, heavy boots, full-faced masks and pager-sized hazardous gas detectors.
"Our team leader also carried a more specialised detector," Kana said. "After every 50m, we would stop to measure the air."
Asked if he was anxious during the 130km journey to the mine, Kana said he felt like throwing up in the Hazmat truck at one point.
"But when you get there, you just have to trust your equipment. If you don't, then you have no confidence in your job."
Kana said the miners could have been working in difficult conditions.
"There was no lighting. It was wet and cramped. We had to move in single file.
"We detected ash, likely caused by the explosion further in."
Kana said the team also came across a space deep in the tunnel.
"It was a small space but bigger than the passages. There weren't any chairs or tables, only five fire extinguishers, which were the only equipment we saw."
"I feel sad for the dead miners," said Kana.
The team went in at 8pm on Saturday, about 12 hours after the blast was believed to have occurred.
Rainfall last night complicated the situation as the lower tunnels became flooded.