The West Coast community of Runanga is grieving after a popular local and former national rugby league player was killed when the shaft of a coal mine collapsed on him.

Bernard Green, 47, was among 10 workers in Roa Mine, Blackball, when the accident happened just after 11am yesterday.

A rescue helicopter flew in a police team from Greymouth about 12.10pm, and nine workers were evacuated.

But it is understood the tunnel caved in where Mr Green was working, about 800 metres from the mine's entrance, burying him.

Acting Senior Sergeant Craig Shannahan, of Greymouth police, said the body was recovered by late afternoon, and the matter would be referred to the coroner.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said: "the community is devastated. It's just really unfortunate. It's one of those hazards and risks of the coal mining industry."

He said the family were popular and the whole community would feel their loss.

"They are one of the most well-known families in the district; they've got five children, all well-known and sporting, and his wife's a local constable and one of her portfolios is youth, and she's been a pillar of the community.

"And Bernie was a Kiwi, a great guy, working class, a very popular and well-known sportsperson."

The widow, Rose, was on duty at the local police station, where the family were seeking refuge. His son is also believed to work at the Roa mine.

Mr Green had played rugby league for Runanga, the West Coast, and the national team. He took part in the South Island Kiwis Reunion match in Christchurch last year.

"I've known him all my life and this is terrible," Mr Kokshoorn said.

"Any coal mining death really hits right to the heart of the people here. The district's been brought up on coal mines and most people would know someone who worked there all their lives."

Though the community had had mining accidents, Mr Kokshoorn said it was still a shock.

"The community will be supporting the family however we can."

He said the mine had a good safety record and the accident was a tragedy.

The casualty follows the death of Runanga resident Robert McGowan in March. He was working in Black Reef mine near Greymouth when a torrent of water washed him away.

He had previously voiced concerns over the mine's safety.

The Department of Labour initially defended its record as regulator of the mining industry, but last month laid 13 charges against three people and a company under the Health and Safety in Employment Act and associated mining regulations.

The Roa mine - the largest privately-owned coal mine on the West Coast and the country's only private coal exporter - had taken part in a rescue exercise with mines nearby in recent weeks.

Mining disasters

Brunner Mine 1896: An explosion left 65 miners dead, and the railway line and trucks twisted and smashed.

Strongman Mine 1967: A blast killed 19 men.

Mt Davy Mine 1998: Two men were killed when they were overcome by gas.

Black Reef Mine March 2006: Robert McGowan dies after the mine floods.