By CATHY ARONSON AND NZPA
Two homes were seriously in danger last night of falling into a 15m-deep crater in Waihi that swallowed one house and was growing by the hour.
A family were lucky to be alive after their home, caravan and two cars plunged into a collapsed goldmining shaft.
The 50m-wide crater grew another 20m in 12 hours, leaving two dwellings near the edge.
Ten more houses were evacuated in a 100m zone around the collapse, which occurred just after midnight yesterday beside Barry Rd. Inspector Alan Shearer, of Thames Coromandel police, said engineers were assessing how many of the homes could be saved.
Waihi Gold Mining Company general manager Dave Ingle said the company had stopped operations, although the collapse was not part of the nearby Martha operation and was outside the company's licence boundaries.
"We are very much part of the community in Waihi and are offering assistance in as practical and worthwhile a manner as possible," he said. The company had paid for temporary accommodation for 26 people.
Hauraki District Council mayor Basil Morrison said engineers were trying to find out what caused the cave-in.
Old mining tunnels lie at least 100m beneath the crater area. Waihi museum member Gale Lockwood said when the mines were abandoned the lower levels were not filled in and only old timbering was left to support them.
It is the third time mines have collapsed in the same area - the first in 1962, then in 1999. The issue of liability is unclear.
Mr Morrison, president of Local Government New Zealand, said the council was not responsible or liable but had agreed to foot the bill for a lawyer to assist affected residents as a "humanitarian" gesture.
"Some of these people are stunned mullets at this time. "We're making sure they're accommodated ... fed and generally looked after. We'll argue about the bills later on."
Those evacuated had been allowed back into the houses to recover personal belongings, with a mine rescue team accompanying those closest to the hole.
Associate Energy Minister Paul Swain said he had received a preliminary briefing from officials on the subsidence and the Government accepted no liability.
"It's not 100 per cent clear what caused the problem but the empty shaft created early last century is the most likely cause," he said. "In the end, people will be liable and there will have to be some compensation."
Insurance Council chief executive Chris Ryan said most residents would not be covered because insurers would say they should have known about the risks.
Green Party co-leader and Coromandel MP Jeanette Fitzsimons called for a public inquiry, saying the collapse was associated with the open-cast Martha mine.
But Mr Morrison said: "Let's not rush into it and make political highway."
By CATHY ARONSON AND NZPA