Families' fight to recover Pike bodies over

PALOMA MIGONE
Last updated 14:41 30/05/2012
Joseph Ray Dunbar
JOSEPH RAY DUNBAR: 17, Greymouth. The youngest of the miners. The day of the explosion was his first day working underground.
Bernie Monk
David Hallett
BERNIE MONK: "[The families] knew this day would come. They just wanted to explore every avenue."

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The families of the 29 men killed in the Pike River mine have quit their battle to retrieve the bodies.

The decision was made at a meeting in Greymouth last night, where the families were told that a recovery operation was too dangerous.

Families spokesman Bernie Monk this afternoon said two Australian experts told the families that there was only a five to 10 per cent chance for the bodies to be recovered.

"In our hearts, we know it's not going to happen," he said.

"[The families] knew this day would come. They just wanted to explore every avenue."

The decision was a drastic u-turn by the families. Just two weeks ago, when Solid Energy confirmed it bought the mine for $7.5 million, they threatened to physically stop the company from taking coal from the site, if it started mining before recovering the bodies.

Solid Energy had said it would recover the bodies only as part of future commercial mining operations and if it was "safe, technically feasible and financially credible to do so".

"The families are hostile and they're not putting up with it," Monk said at the time.

But today, he said their position had changed.

The families would still push if any opportunity to recover the bodies arose, but had come to the realisation that safety of other people came first.

It had taken 18 months to get officials to sit the families down to show them the "wider picture" and look at them in the eyes, Monk said.

"They didn't tell us anything we didn't know. It was just the wider picture, the implications and the hardship of recovery."

"No one has ever come to us until now, and spoken the truth to us on what has to be done down there," he said.

"There is still an opportunity, you know Solid Energy have said to us that they will hopefully recover the drift. But the [experts] went through the problems they are going to face to recover the drift.

He said the families were told the mine was volatile and was still leaking. There were diagrams and it took a couple of hours to explain all the issues that may present during a recovery operation.

"To put in all the stoppings and everything else under immense atmosphere, these blokes will struggle," Monk said.

"You've got to realise that the mine is five metres high and five metres wide. All the gear has to be carried in. Nine out of ten, if oxygen got in there, it doesn't take long for an explosive situation."

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Monk said some families had moved on, thanks to the support from the community and each other, but some were "very upset" that they were not going to get their men home.

"We'll support them and make sure they get through that," he said.

"We don't want families to go through the hardships and the pain that we've had to put up with for the last 18 months."

'THERE IS STILL A CHANCE'

Prime Minister John Key maintained there was still hope of recovering the remains of the 29 men.

Key said the resumption of commercial coast mining is the best way of getting underground to retrieve the remains.

Earlier this month Solid Energy confirmed they have bought the mine for $7.5 million.

"I still think there is very much a chance  and that was why I made it a condition of sale," Key said. If Solid Energy can get into Pike River  for coal extraction then that's the very best chance we've got of any form of body recovery."

He said he understood Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder recently made it clear to families that the possibility of stand-alone operation to recover the men was "extremely remote".

"I think we have understood that for some time. But that's the very reason why a sale of Pike River to Solid Energy is very important because what we can't rule out is the possibility they get into the mine because of mining operations.

Now I know that is still also a difficult possibility, or remote, but not impossible."

He added that a tiny bit of hope has "always been there".

Key denied he has repeatedly raised the expectations of the grieving families.

"No, I think I have always been realistic. I've always said to the families the best chance of getting into the mine and for body recovery was aligned with the possibility of there being a sale of the mine."

- Stuff

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