Pike River Inquiry defining when workers died

Narrowing down the specific time the 29 Pike River workers died will be the key focus of the next stage of the Royal Commission of Inquiry.

The commissioners will spend three weeks examining hundreds of documents on the search and rescue operation for the next phase of the inquiry, due to begin early September.

The time of death has been an important issue for the families of victims, who were originally told the men died as a result of the first explosion on November 19.

But they were then showed video footage from inside the mine taken after the explosion that placed the original theory in doubt.

The footage showed a fully clothed body laying face down as well as an open fire box, indicating at least some of the men may have survived the first blast.

Families also reported seeing what appeared to be a second body, which local police would not confirm.

The enhanced footage has been shown to families, who said they “definitely” believe they can see bodies.

The discovery of the bodies reignited the families’ desperation for a recovery effort to retrieve the bodies to allow for proper funerals in the hope of achieving some closure.

But the receivers of the mine have said recovering the bodies is too expensive.

The New Zealand mining union has called for the receivers to make a recovery effort a condition of sale for the west coast mine or risk an international boycott.

The open fire box and assumed bodies inside the mine will be part of the investigation in the next phase to examine whether the men had an opportunity to save themselves.

Daniel Rockhouse and Russell Smithtold of their harrowing escape from the mine in March, and their trek 1.7 kilometres out of the mine through the gas and smoke overpowering the underground mine.

The mine’s rescue plan will also be a key concern, as well as the qualifications and experience of the recue teams and efforts made to stabilise the mine in the initial days following the first explosion.

In June a former safety officer at the mine revealed he resigned over safety fears and mining expert Dave Feickert slammed the decision by the industry in the 1990’s top scrap the mine inspectorates, saying the disaster could have been avoided if the system was in place.

The first phase of the inquiry also revealed a second escape shaft was never built at the mine, while there were calls for Labor Minister Kate Wilkinson to step down when it was discovered she had not implemented recommended changes.

The next phase will hear from several relatives, according to family spokesman Bernie Monk, whose son Michael died in the disaster.

"It will be very hard, very emotional for them I’d imagine, but also quite a good thing to do to help move on and improve the lot of miners so this doesn’t happen again," he told New Zealand media.

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