Apology fails to impress Pike families

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 15:55 13/12/2012

Bernie Monk and John Key

Pike families
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Neville Rockhouse - who lost his youngest son Benjamin in the mine disaster - arrives to meet the prime minister.

PM arrives in Greymouth

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The Prime Minister has apologised in person today at a private meeting with families of the 29 men killed when Pike River coalmine exploded more than two years ago.

While his apology failed to impress them, they welcomed his offer of Government funding for efforts to re-enter the underground West Coast mine's 2.3km tunnel.

After this morning's meeting in Greymouth, also attended by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, Key said he first wanted to apologise personally to the families on behalf of the Government.

''Obviously we've put out statements before but it was really important that I came face-to-face and said 'Look, we're really sorry for what happened and actually the Government has to take some responsibility for that'."

The royal commission report into the tragedy, released last month, blamed regulatory failures by the then Labour Department for contributing to the blast.

At its release, Key publicly apologised to families during a press conference in Wellington.

Today, he said the Government would help to fund efforts to re-enter the coalmine's tunnel, which could cost about $10 million.

Any proposed re-entry plan had to be safe and credible plus needed approval from mining officials.

A rockfall down the tunnel's far end is believed to block access into the mine's main working area, where most, if not all, of the men's bodies remain entombed.

Key said he supported the families' request for his mining experts to meet with theirs because they disagreed over whether body recovery was possible. 

''I can't see any harm in putting them all together and seeing if there can be a bit of agreement."

Last month, three international mining experts came to Greymouth for the families and determined it was possible to safely re-enter the tunnel and the mine's main working area. 

''I told them absolutely in plain English that all of the advice I've ever had in my office has always been that it will not be possible to get in to the mine's workings itself,'' Key said.

He said his team of experts included one of the royal commissioners, Stewart Bell, Queensland's Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health, plus Australian mining health and safety expert Professor Jim Galvin and the High Hazards Unit's chief mining inspector. 

Key also discussed with families how the Government planned to implement the report's 16 recommendations.Bernie Monk, spokesman for most Pike families, said the meeting was positive because Key had committed to helping to fund any approved re-entry plan into the mine's tunnel.

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He was pleased Key agreed with his suggestion to get all the experts around a table to iron out their disagreements and hoped it would progress efforts to get into the mine.

''We're past apologies to be honest and I think we're more interested in getting up the tunnel than any apology,'' said Monk, whose son Michael, 23, died in the explosion.

Milt Osborne's widow, Anna Osborne, said the meeting was emotional but also a chance to vent anger Key's way over the frustrations from the past two years.

She was pleased with his offer to fund the tunnel re-entry but refused to accept his apology.

''I personally didn't want an apology from him to be honest because it's far too late. It's two years down the track and it should have happened long before now.

''He made no promise this time to get into the main body of the mine and of course, that's where most of our men are so we've left him with a message that we're not going to go away. Everyone deserves the right to bury their loved ones and we will keep fighting for that and he's gone away saying he understands that.''

'A VERY REMOTE THING'

Olivia Monk, brother of Michael Monk, who died in the mine explosion, earlier told The Press that Key had given the families an "informal apology" before discussing how difficult it was going to be to get into the West Coast mine. 

He indicated the Government would give some money towards tunnel reclamation and that it would go ahead, but he still believed it was improbable people would be able to get into the mine.

"We've always known it's a very remote thing," Monk said.

Monk said the mood at the meeting was one of anger.

Key had talked about the 16 recommendations made by the royal commission of inquiry into the disaster.

"They said they will be adopting all 16 recommendations," Monk said.

Her mother, Kath Monk, earlier said the families made it clear to Attorney-General Chris Finlayson last month that they were unhappy Key gave his public apology in Wellington rather than directly to the families.

''That has obviously been passed to him,'' she said.

The royal commission report blamed regulatory failures by the then Labour Department for contributing to the disaster, prompting then labour minister Kate Wilkinson to resign from the portfolio.

Last month, three international mining experts determined it was possible to safely re-enter the tunnel and the mine's main working area.

They had developed options for re-entry, which were given to the Government's liaison man for the victims' families, Bruce Parkes.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand this morning, Neville Rockhouse, who lost his youngest son, Benjamin, in the mine disaster, said Key had backed away from the idea of body recovery at "warp speed".

He said the topic would be up for discussion again today.

"We would love John Key to agree to that today but we doubt that very much will happen. It would be great if he walked in there and said he's prepared sign off on a tunnel reclamation project," he said. 

Rockhouse and the other family members had consulted three experts about recovering the 29 bodies.

"We were really put in a position where we had to put up or shut up ... and come up with our own plan," he said.

"Even the preamble to their report was that the second part of the plan, which was the body recovery, was dependent on the tunnel being reclaimed."

Rockhouse said Key was "slightly confused" about what the families wanted.

"The families always said that there will be a two-phase operation - first, the reclamation of the tunnel,'' he said.

''Solid Energy has the power and influence and control of that tunnel every day. We don't have any influence or control to add access to that. It can be revented and it can be in a staged process."

Rockhouse said the families would accept defeat and "back away" if the tunnel reclamation went ahead but the experts could not get past the rockfall.

"If it is beyond all hope getting any further into this mine and ... for the first time people have been there and had a look, not robots, but people ... and [they] say, 'Look, it's beyond all belief, we can't go any further', then we would take steps to turn that into a burial site and we would back away," he said.

- The Press

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