Rescuers will enter the Pike River Coal mine next week, but the bodies of the 29 miners entombed in there will not be recovered for weeks, the receiver says.
Yesterday’s announcement that rescue teams were entering the mine led to many assuming a recovery mission was underway to retrieve the bodies.
"It’s a very emotional topic and some people like to think the best, but unfortunately the reality is the rescue team is not going anywhere near the bodies,” receiver Malcolm Hollis told the New Zealand Press.
He said the purpose of the team from Mines Rescue team service entering the mine will be to stabilise the main tunnel, not recover the bodies.
A meeting was held in Christchurch yesterday for the victims’ families, receivers of the mine and the Mines Rescue Service to discuss the entry of recue teams.
The confusion about recovering the bodies may have been impacted by the discussion of a feasibility plan discussed at the meeting.
"The parties involved yesterday agreed a feasibility study should be put together to assess the various options of entering the mine to recover the bodies, but next week’s progress is about getting the mine stable."
A Mines Rescue team will wear breathing apparatuses to go 100 metres into the mine’s tunnel to reseal the entryway in an attempt to stabilise the mine.
Hollis said they will not be anywhere the miners’ bodies, which lie 2.3 kilometres into the mine, behind a large rockfall.
He said it would be months before a recovery mission was possible and his main priority was stabilising the mine before selling it.
In March families said the receivers were putting a sale ahead of a recovery, and earlier this month, the former safety officer, Neville Rockhouse who lost his son Ben in the November 19 disaster echoed claims money was preventing receivers entering.
The mine was officially put on the market in March and has received numerous bids.
Solid Energy was one of the most prominent bidders and said it was the only company with enough mining experience on the West Coast to make Pike River financially viable again.
The few companies that made official bids for the mine and were being considered by receivers were required to sign a confidentiality clause.
Options for recovery
Lawyer for some of the families, Nicholas Davidson, QC, told The Press the families believe is is obvious receivers did not have the “incentive” to begin a recovery operation.
Another lawyer for the families, Richard Raymond, said "four or five options" for recovery were considered at the meeting and the preferred option was a staged entry from the main entrance tunnel.
The atmosphere would be stabilised by sealing the tunnel in sections of about 200m at a time until a 50m rockfall that blocked the area containing the bodies was reached, he said.
An 180m tunnel could then be drilled around the rockfall to enter the mine beyond and recover the bodies.
It would take about three months to complete a feasibility assessment for drilling a tunnel around the rockfall, Raymond said.
While the operation would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Raymond said it would have the advantage of preserving the $300 million entrance tunnel for the new owner of the mine.
Davidson wants police, receivers and Government to pay for the work.
"We believe this is an operation that really has a nationwide imperative," he said.
"We just don’t think it’s possible for this country to leave these men behind.
"We do not see this country accepting that."
Getting the bodies out
Spokesman for the families, Neville Rockhouse, who along with his two sons worked at the mine, said the families have been “strung along” by receivers.
Rockhouse lost his son Ben in the disaster and he said the assumption had been that receivers would continue the recovery effort where the police left off, but had been left disappointed and frustrated.
The mother of another mine victim welcomed the news of a recovery and the beginning of the initial stages of retrieval.
"That’s all we wanted. They all pay taxes; they deserve to be buried properly," Blair Sims’ mother Lynne said.
"The experts said … there’d be nothing left, but now they’ve found bodies.
"They’re the reasons why they need to go in."
While most of the families have made it clear they want the bodies of their loved ones retrieved, Rod Holing said he wants his son Richard’s body to be left in the mine.
“I would prefer to remember Richard as he was th day he went into mine, not how he could be now," Holling said.
He said his son had always intended to have his ashes scattered in the Paparoa Range, where the mine is located.
"It’s not worth anyone else getting hurt over it," he said.
Cooperation needed for recovery
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn has advised patience for the recovery operation, saying it would be a long process and would need a “team effort” from the buyer, the Department of Conservation, the government and receivers.
"To rely on just one way of getting down there is not wise," he said.
"There should always be a backup here.
“I think there’s better ways of doing it."
According to Kokshoorn the mine will eventually reopen, requiring more than one entry point, and he believes teams should start sooner rather than later.
"Why not start a second entry now?
“There’s no question about it that the mine will operate again," he said.
Police Assistant Commissioner Grant Nicholls said the mine was still dangerous, and making it stable to enter and work in safely was paramount.
The mayor said he did not have authority to commit the police to paying for the operation.
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister John Key said he had not been told about the plan.
"The Government has always wanted to give closure to the families and ensure that recovery takes place, bearing in mind safety considerations.
“These are matters for the receivers, police and Mines Rescue," she said.
Image: The Australian