Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry underway

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Coal tragedy is expected to hear some explosive evidence when it gets underway at 11:30am today.

Greymouth Mayor Tony Kokshoorn told New Zealand media the process will be difficult for families.

“There’s a lot of evidence to come out – and that starts today,” he told TV One this morning.

"It’s been gut-wrenching for the families but this is the time we’re going to dig in," he said.

Kokshoorn said the most important factor was figuring out why the explosions occurred and ensuring the future safety of mines so a similar disaster could never happen again.

He echoed the previous claims that the safety standards at west coast mine should have prevented such a tragedy.

Last month a former employee at Pike River revealed he left the mine amid safety fears and criticised the mine safety standards in the country, and Prime Minister John Key said the incident could never have occurred under Australian standards.

The dismissal of the mine safety inspector at mines in the country has also been criticised, with claims the high levels of gas in the mine would have been seen observed by the inspector and the area evacuated.

Bring their bodies home: miners families

Recovering the bodies of the 29 miners entombed in the mine since November is still a priority for the families, Kokshoorn said.

"We do want the recovery of the bodies,” he said

There are a lot of people around New Zealand saying we have to move on, but it’s not that simple."

Families’ spokesman Bernie Monk, whose son Michael died in the disaster, said families are desperate for answers, particularly in light of the discovery of what they believe was two bodies in footage taken inside the mine.

"I want to know what happened down there, and I want to know why it happened and how it happened".

Several of the dead men’s families plan to attend the inquiry and Kokshoorn is also expected to attend.

The inquiry will be split into four stages and the controversial single access shaft for the mine will be one of the main issues examined.

The evidence

Those providing evidence include Don Elder, chief executive of state-owned Solid Energy; Peter Whittall, chief executive of Pike River Coal Ltd; and Harry Bell, the former chief inspector of coal mines.

Bell had worked for Pike River taking samples and was involved with the 1967 Strongman mine disaster that killed 19 men.

Monk said the families expected "explosive things out of what Don and Harry have to say," and Bell is the families’ key person to give evidence.

"He’s putting his heart and soul into bringing the truth out," Monk said.

Whittall will be the only Pike River employee to give evidence at the hearing.

The mine’s chief executive at the time of the explosions is due to appear next Monday.

Families want the truth

Last night, the families of the miners said they want the “whole world to know the truth” about what happened in the tragedy.

Lawyer for the families Nicholas Davidson QC, told ONE News the reason for the explosion "needs to be known and carried into all other mining operations, not just here but internationally."

He said families "don’t want their men to have died in vain here".

About 50 lawyers are involved in the inquiry, and a report is expected for the Governor-General by March next year.

Alongside Judge Justice Grahem Pankhurst on the commission are David Henry, the former commissioner of the Electoral Commission, and Stewart Bell, Queensland’s commissioner for Mine Safety and Health.

The inquiry will be of special interest to the international mining industry, who have threatened to boycott the mine if a proper recovery effort is not outlined before the mine is sold.

The inquiry is excluded from considering the social consequences, economic impact and merits of coalmining.

Recovery effort

Gas monitoring is continuing at the mine since a temporary airtight seal was completed a week ago and work is expected to start this week to organise the entrance and open doors of the shipping containers, which were its emergency plug.

Air would then be allowed into the mine up to the new seal to test its effectiveness.

Mine receivers said work would then start on two sets of double steel doors at the mine’s entrance.

Discussions are continuing about how to recover the 2.3-kilometre tunnel up to the rock fall.

New Zealand station 3News is at the inquiry and will have live updates throughout the day.

Image: Spokesman for the families, Bernie Monk; NZPA.

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