Pike River mine re-entered - again
A second team of Mines Rescue staff have entered the Pike River coal mine this afternoon after an earlier foray found the tunnel in good condition.
Today's re-entry of the mine is the first time people have walked inside since disastrous explosions killed 29 men last November.
It marks the start of work to properly seal the mine to allow a staged re-entry and, later, recovery of the victims' bodies.
This morning a team of six Mines Rescue volunteers battled for about half an hour to remove seals around the shipping container's doors, which was part of a makeshift plug of the portal to stop oxygen entering.
As they worked, a strong smell of gas pervaded the misty air clinging to the steep, bush-covered slopes.
Nitrogen has been pumped constantly into the West Coast mine deep in Paparoa National Park since soon after the fatal explosions in efforts to stabilise the volatile mine.
The men also had to haul away sandbags at the entrance, which created a moat to capture water draining from the underground mine tunnel.
Once completed, the team had a safety briefing before the shipping container doors were finally wrenched open at 11.45am and some Mines Rescue staff wearing breathing apparatus swiftly walked inside.
Several came out a minute later and closed the doors behind them.
The team inside then had to open the double doors at the far end up the shipping container before finally stepping into the mine.
Mines Rescue general manager Trevor Watts said his staff planned to work in two-hour shifts to build a temporary seal 100 metres from the mine entrance, staying inside two hours at a time to ensure their safety because they had to wear breathing apparatus.
A second team of six entered at about 2.20pm and the first team planned to return at about 5pm.
Watts said the first team reached about 300m inside the tunnel and found it in "good condition".
Today's effort was concentrated on carrying in equipment with a temporary seal expected to take about five days to complete.
Mine manager Steve Ellis said gas levels inside the mine would be monitored for about a week or more to ensure it was stable before work would begin to erect two sets of double steel doors to seal the mine entrance, preventing oxygen from entering. Work was due to finish by the end of next month.
'MORAL OBLIGATIONS COME INTO PLAY'
Neville Rockhouse, who had been Pike River Coal's safety and training manager, said it was "a sad indictment on corporate New Zealand" that the families had to push for a recovery effort.
"Moral obligations come into play."
Experts predicted the recovery of the men's bodies could take up to two years, which included tunnelling around the rockfall.
"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."
The families hoped the royal commission of inquiry into the tragedy, due to start on July 11, would answer their questions.
"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.
Meanwhile, the Government had asked its lawyers to look into making the recovery of the bodies a condition of the mine's sale.
Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that Crown Law and the Ministry of Economic Development would give the Government advice on whether retrieving the bodies could be put in the mine's sale and purchase agreement.
PIKE RIVER MINER RETURNS UNDERGROUND
Pike River blast survivor Daniel Rockhouse, son of Neville, has returned to work underground as a coalminer in Australia.
The then 24-year-old Greymouth man was one of two who survived the initial explosion at the West Coast mine.
His brother, Ben, 21, was among the victims of the blast.
Neville Rockhouse said yesterday his son had moved to Queensland to work at North Goonyella, an 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."
He underwent counselling to cope with "sole-survivor syndrome", a type of post-traumatic stress, which had helped.
"The boy has been to hell and back. In one fell swoop, his group of friends were just wiped out."
Initially, he feared failing medical tests required to return underground because of ongoing respiratory problems from the explosion.
"When he was dragging [survivor] Russell [Smith] out of the mine, he breathed in enough s... to last a lifetime," Neville Rockhouse said.
It was vital he could use a self-rescue unit. However, he passed the tests.