Rescue teams have been given the all clear to enter the Pike River coal mine today, following multiple set backs.
The search for the bodies of the 29 men killed underground in November will still not happen immediately, as the first stages of the mine entry will be focused on erecting a temporary seal 100 metres from the mine’s entrance.
Rescue teams will work two-hour shifts, wearing breathing apparatuses to conduct the work.
Mine Manager Steve Ellis told local media gas levels have remained low enough to aloe an entry into the mine today.
"Everybody up here at the mine site and Mines Rescue is very, very keen to get started."
If gas levels remain low, the completion of the temporary seal will be followed by the installation of two sets of double-steel doors to be placed near the mine’s entrance to prevent oxygen from entering.
The work is expected to finish by the end of the month, but Ellis did warn the weather would influence the operation, as it affects how much methane the coal produces and therefore how much oxygen enters the mine.
"We don’t want that. Oxygen is required for combustion," he said.
Ellis said a feasibility study for a staged re-entry will start next week.
The plan will be for the teams to proceed 100 metres at a time until they reach the rockfall about 2.3 kilometres inside the mine shaft.
The rockfall is believed to be blocking the main section of the mine where the men had been working at the time of the explosions.
Recovery of the bodies will not be part of the plan, Ellis said.
Experts have predicted it could be up to two years before the bodies are recovered.
"It’s technically challenging but I believe doable," he said. "We very much want our loved ones returned to us.
"It’s been gut-wrenching for all of us,” Neville Rockhouse, who lost his son Ben Rockhouse in the tragedy said.
Rockhouse said entering the mine would provide vital clues on what cause the mine explosions.
He said yesterday the families of victims are excited that work is underway but they know they have a long way to go.
Rockhouse, who was also the safety officer at the mine, said it was a “sad indictment on corporate New Zealand” that the families had to push for a recovery.
"Moral obligations come into play,” he said.
The New Zealand Government has also asked its lawyers to push for the recovery of the bodies a condition of the mine’s sale.
Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that the Government would receive expert advice on whether retrieving the bodies could be put in the mine’s sale and purchase agreement.
Families are concerned new mine owners could seal off the area where the men are and mine around them.
Lawyer for the families, Nick Davidson QC said he believes the Crown Minerals Act can be amended so recovering the bodies is part of the mining licence.
"Parliament can push this through if it has to be pushed through.
We’d hope for all party support for such a proposal," he said.
Key said if it was possible to add such a clause to the sale conditions, it would become a key objective for the government.
"If it is possible in the future, then that is something we will closely look at. It’s something we will financially support."
The families of the men are hopeful the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy will get the answers they need.
"I need to know as a father but I also I need to know as a safety professional. I thought we were trucking along well and I feel devastated about that," Rockhouse said.
The Royal Commission is due to begin on 11 July.
Neville Rockhouse lost one son in the tragedy, but his other son Daniel was lucky enough to escape.
He is back working underground at a mine in Australia.
His father said he has moved to Queensland to work at the North Goonyella underground coalmine near Mackay.
"He seems quite happy but he had a few teary moments when underground.
"He’s bumped into five or six ex-Pike employees over there and they’re good support for him."
Rockhouse has told of his escape from the mine following the initial blast, and has since received counselling to deal with the “sole-survivor syndrome”, a type of post-traumatic stress.
"The boy has been to hell and back. In one fell swoop, his group of friends were just wiped out," his dad said.
He suffered ongoing respiratory issues following the explosion and was concerned he would not be able to work underground.
"When he was dragging [survivor] Russell [Smith] out of the mine, he breathed in enough s… to last a lifetime," Neville Rockhouse said.
Rockhouse passed the tests and is happy to be back doing the work he enjoys, his father said.