Mining officials are considering a plan to re-enter Pike River coalmine.
The plan would see Mines Rescue Trust workers enter the 2.3km tunnel as far as a rockfall which occurred during the November 2010 disaster which left 29 miners dead.
If successful, this could lead to a further plan to re-enter the main workings of the mine beyond that. Most, if not all, of the men's bodies were believed to be entombed in that area.
Earlier reports that the plan was for a body recovery were incorrect - state coalminer Solid Energy's drift re-entry project manager, Mark Pizey, had stressed the plan was only to re-enter the 2.3km tunnel earlier this month.
However, Pike families had long clung to hopes that some of their men's bodies might be retrieved from the unexplored 700m section of the tunnel, dying while trying to flee the blast.
Minister for Labour Simon Bridges confirmed he was seeking advice from the High Hazards Unit before taking the proposal to Cabinet.
"I have received correspondence from [Solid Energy] and I'm in the process of getting advice and working through the issues, and that's we're at right now.
"I've always said - and is still the case - I don't want to muck around on this. I think it's important for the victims and their families that we move as expeditiously as we can, but unfortunately it's part of the facts of life that we have to do this right."
The first stage was to get to the point of collapse in the mine. From there, getting past the rockfall was still being discussed.
Representative of the victims' families Bernie Monk said he was hopeful the bodies would be out by Christmas - but he admitted it could take longer.
"It's something everyone's worked extremely hard on for the past four or five months and I can only thank the Government on all that they've done and also Solid Energy... "
"We haven't been finalised yet, nothing's been said to us personally and we've been down this track before so I'm just waiting really.
"It's something that... we've always said this can be done, and it's something we've fought for. It looks like it might be coming to fruition.
Monk said it should not have taken this long to get to this point.
"Our experts said with tears in their eyes, 'Bernie this should have been done 18 months ago.'"
"The Government has always said 'bring us a plan', and I think we had the right experts in the right places, and as soon as the Government came on board and started to help us with this, things started to happen."
He said he thought the damage wouldn't be as bad as everyone had made it out to be.
If teams could get beyond the mine drift, and pump nitrogen in, Monk was hopeful it could be made safe enough to retrieve their family members' bodies.
Monk said there was a lot of work that needed to be done before re-entry was possible. Christmas was a hopeful target, but probably not possible.
LONG TIME COMING
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said it had been a long time coming.
"It's been three years now, so we've been waiting patiently for a re-entry into the mine - something we always hoped was going to happen within the first few days.
"We're excited by it and at least it will eliminate one way or another whether there's bodies down beyond where the robot finally got to."
He said the plan was to seal the ventilation shaft first.
"There's also another porthole there which they used to take methane samples - they are going to put grout down through that, into the drift which would expand when setting and seal the entire mine, and allow them to force nitrogen or oxygen down it."
It was hoped that would make the mine safe enough for a Search and Rescue team to explore where the men's bodies might be.
Kokshoorn said at a meeting with Prime Minister John Key and receivers in February last year, the government committed $10 million to the recovery mission, and the receivers $5 million.
"John Key's money is on the table, but the receivers, I wonder if they actually stuck it in the bank account for a rainy day - that's just arriving."
He said this point should have been reached earlier.
"I don't know why it didn't happen earlier, and I think the reason, if you're looking for one, is probably in the fact that Pike went into receivership and Solid Energy basically went the same way. I think that probably slowed everything down."
He also said that while Pike River legislation had made health and safety regulations "that much more stringent", it hasn't helped their cause in getting the men returned to their families.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Check out what's on in your community or post an upcoming event.
Subscribe to a digital replica of The Southland Times.
Southland Times subscriber news and information.
Click here for information about advertising with The Southland Times.