OPINION: At times the loved ones of the Pike River miners must have felt as if they were beating their heads against some of that fallen rock.
The path towards the recovery of even some of the 29 bodies down there has been one of excruciating delay and abiding uncertainty. Even now, nearly three years after the disaster, at the long-awaited start of operations to re-enter the main tunnel up to the rock fall, recoveries are by no means merely a matter of time.
But simple careworn hopefulness still represents a lot to the loved ones of the lost miners.
And not them alone. It sits uneasily with the wider public that the mine still holds so many of the men it claimed. To be able to return them to their families would be more than just a symbolic gesture. Each and every body retrieved would stand as a meaningful, even precious, achievement in and of itself. As Dean Dunbar, whose 17-year-old son Joseph Ray Dunbar is among the lost, put it: every hard-working minor deserves to come home.
Yet the greater imperative remains, as it has always been, that nobody else die or be harmed down there.
The nation has learned to its cost what happens if unforgiving environs such as these are not afforded the respect they deserve. On the brink of demonstrable progress, the need for clear-eyed risk assessments remains paramount. The last thing the families, or anybody else, should want is some sort of impatient mindset to develop amid a climate of heightened expectation.
It is gratifying to see the New Zealand Defence Force's grunty NH90 helicopter and army air lift personnel being called into service to remove equipment and debris from the top of the ventilation shaft.
Ahead lies a project, potentially taking up to six months, to seal off the main entry tunnel and pump in nitrogen to force out any methane gas, allowing experts to walk down a 2.3km shaft to search the area.
Though this is still the wrong side of the rock fall that is blocking off the main mine workings where most of the bodies lie, there is still a prospect that some will be found. At very least, from this initial exploration the recovery experts would be much better placed to reappraise their next steps.
The Government is, reasonably enough, unwilling to speculate on prospects for re-entering the main mine before the tunnel has been successfully re-entered.
It may be that re-entry proves to be as good as it gets. Even then, it would matter to the families.
Because at the very least they are entitled to something that is entirely reasonable but nobody has, as yet, been able to give them.
That is an assurance that there is no body still down there that could have safely been retrieved. And that each miner still entombed there is irretrievable for reasons that are more legitimate than the exhausted patience of the powers that be.
The Government has pledged $10 million towards the project. Nobody should begrudge that.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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