Cabinet to consider mine inquiry

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Last updated 14:40 28/11/2010
Bob and Rosie Corson
DAVID HALLETT/The Press
POIGNANT: Bob and Rosie Corson, of Blackball, tie a rose to the gate of the Pike River Coal yard in memory of their friend and fellow motorbike rider, Richard Holling, who died in the mine.
Families
GRIEF: The families of the lost Pike River miners have visited the mine this morning.

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Prime Minister John Key will take a proposal for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mining disaster to Cabinet tomorrow.

The proposal, for a three-person commission, will also recommend a judge to chair the commission, a spokeswoman for Mr Key said today.

The inquiry will be separate from police, Department of Labour and coronial inquiries.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the Royal Commission of inquiry should be set up in two parts.

"Part one would focus on the specific causes of the tragedy to give closure to families and guidance for the future operation of the mine," he said.

"Part two would focus on the related issue of the broader safety and regulation of underground mining and could take longer to report back."

Dr Norman also said it was essential to have a miner on the commission.

"For the sake of everyone involved, and to ensure that we get to the bottom of the cause of the explosion, the Inquiry needs to have maximum credibility and legitimacy. To do that it needs to include a representative of workers alongside industry expertise," he said

Heartbreak bus trip up to the mine

A convoy of buses carrying relatives of the trapped Pike River workers lumbered up to the mine yesterday in a funeral-like possession that reduced many on board to tears.

Even through the tinted windows of the buses the grief and anguish was clear on the faces of the passengers as one-by-one the nine buses passed through the gates of the Pike River mine and on to the site where their sons, fathers, husbands and brothers died after an underground methane-fuelled mine explosion nine days ago.

For many of the relatives, including the young children of the missing 29, it was their first chance to visit the mine since the November 19 disaster.

Some clutched flowers they had brought with them to lay as a tribute to the dead while at least one man carried a framed photo of his loved one.

One woman collapsed while waiting to get on the bus in Greymouth and had to be helped into an ambulance.

The uncle of one of 29 men still underground in the Pike River Coal mine says a trip to the mine site was heartbreaking.

"You're going up to such heartbreak in such a beautiful part of the world," Brent Palmer, uncle of miner Brendon Palmer, told NZPA. Palmer described the mood of the families as "sombre" as they made the bus trip along the same route that the 29 men had travelled just over a week ago.

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The mother of Zen Drew, 21, said she found the trip to the mine "very healing".

"I felt close to my boy. I felt like I was able to say goodbye to him – just directly from me," Leeza Verhoeven said.

Yesterday should by rights have been a day of celebration at the Pike River coal mine as it was exactly two years ago that it officially opened, but with 29 lives now lost there and uncertainty still remaining over whether the bodies can be recovered there was anguish, not jubilation.

Since the initial explosion there have been two further explosions at the mine and gas levels underground are still dangerously high, which is preventing recovery teams from going underground. In the best-case scenario it is likely to be several days before anyone can recover the bodies of the 29 and it could take weeks, even months.

As preparations for the recovery operations continued, the grieving families were shown a photograph of their loved one's name tags still hanging on the board where they placed them before going underground for their shift on November 19 – a poignant reminder their men still need to be brought home.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn and mine boss Peter Whittall accompanied the families to the mine site, where they spent about 90 minutes before being ferried back to Greymouth, where a large team of victim support workers were on hand to greet them. Kokshoorn said families would be in limbo until the bodies were recovered.

"You can't have closure until you're holding those bodies again, which is all part of the healing process."

Last night a special church service was held at Greymouth's Holy Trinity Church to remember the men and a national memorial service will be held at Greymouth's Omoto racecourse, which looks out to the Paparoa Range where the Pike River mine is located, at 2pm on Thursday.

The service will be televised live. In the meantime, Pike River has vowed to co-operate fully with all official inquiries into the mining disaster and has also launched its own independent investigation.

 

TEN BUSES MAKE EMOTIONAL JOURNEY

More than 10 white buses lined the street outside the Grey District Council today to take families up to the Pike River Coal mine, where the bodies of 29 men are still underground.

Up to 500 family members travelled up to the site today under overcast skies, just over a week after the disaster.

The families walked out of the council building onto the buses this morning, some carrying large bunches of flowers, one man holding a framed picture of his loved one.

One woman was helped into an ambulance after collapsing while waiting to get on a bus.

Another was too upset to talk to waiting media, who gathered alongside police and victim support workers.

One father isn't going. Laurie Drew, father of Zen, 21, told NZPA he wasn't going to take the trip.  

"I went up there the other day and now my boys are going up, which is really good because it allows them to feel closer to their brother,'' Mr Drew said. The visit organised by the mining company would help grieving families deal with the loss of their loved ones, he said.

The West Coast community is in mourning for the 16 miners and 13 contractors who were trapped in the mine after a large methane-fuelled explosion on November 19.

A second bigger explosion on Wednesday put an end to any hope the men had survived. A third, smaller explosion rocked the mine yesterday, just five minutes before the time of the first explosion a week before. Many extended family members had arrived in Greymouth, Mr Drew said.  

"We just want closure ... then everyone can move on.''

However, he believed the visit should have happened earlier, so family could be closer to their loved ones. Families will be able to see photos of the men's tags that they placed on a board before entering the mine, but they will not be taken to the mine entrance or put in any danger.

Their return to town later this afternoon will be followed by a service adapted to remember the men, at 6pm in the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Greymouth.

Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said a resolve to remove the bodies of the 29 men remained intact, despite gas levels underground fluctuating between low and explosive.

Nevertheless, it could be weeks before the bodies were recovered, Mr Whittall said.

Maori have already performed a karakia at the site alongside the White Knight Stream, which was sacred to iwi and also a symbol of the mine.

A national memorial service for the men is being held at the Omoto racecourse, which looks out to the Paparoa Range where the mine is located, at 2pm on Thursday.

Pike River two years old

Today is exactly two years since Pike River Mine on the West Coast was opened under optimistic projections for exports and employment, but it is far from a joyous occasion following the deaths of 29 men in the mine this month.

The West Coast community is in mourning for the 16 miners and 13 contractors who became trapped in the mine after a large methane-fuelled explosion on November 19.

A second bigger explosion on Wednesday put an end to any hope the men had survived.

A third, smaller explosion rocked the mine yesterday, just five minutes before the time of the first explosion a week before.

Gerry Brownlee, Minister of Energy and Resources and Economic Development, who opened the mine along the Brunner coal seam, estimated the project would recover about 18 million tonnes of coal over an 18-year life.

"That will make a significant contribution to our exports and our economy, particularly on the West Coast."

He projected the mine would employ about 150 people at full production with another 450 people in support and servicing industries, Families of the dead men will head up to the mine today, but would not be taken to the mine portal or into any unsafe zone, Pike River Coal chairman John Dow said.

Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said a resolve to remove the bodies of the 29 men remained intact, despite gas levels fluctuating between low and explosive.

An Australian jet engine, called a gag, that could blow inert gas into the mine and sucks all the oxygen out of the air, arrived at Hokitika this morning.

Whittall favoured its use as it worked quicker than other options being explored, but no decision had been made over its use.  

"I don't want the gas fire to become a coal fire and I want to get to the miners as quickly as we can and give our families closure."

It could be weeks before the bodies were recovered, Mr Whittall said. Queensland District president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Stephen Smyth said attempting to enter a volatile mine after multiple explosions was rare, and support services should be in place for families to deal with what might be found there.

"The thing is, with most mines in the world that have blown up ... had one explosion and then a secondary (explosion), nine times out of 10 they seal those mines forever. Because you're talking about terrific forces, high temperatures..."

Those who went in to recover the bodies would also need counselling to deal with the trauma, Smyth said. "All miners see each other as brothers and the problem is these poor bastards have worked with these guys and it doesn't matter whether you have or not... you can relate.

"So it's not a walk in the park and something you'd want to do every day of the week." A national memorial service for the miners is being held at the Omoto racecourse, which looks out to the Paparoa Range where the mine is located, at 2pm on Thursday

Floral tribute to miners

A motorbike adorned with a big yellow ribbon approaches the gate at the Pike River coalmine gates.

Only those authorised are allowed past the gate and Bob Corson, with his leathers and his tattooed hands, does not look like an official.

He and his partner, Rosie, are from Blackball, the home of their friend Richard Holling, 41, a carpenter who died in the mine explosion.

"He helped to build our house and we used to go bike riding together," said Corson, who knew Holling for 17 years.

The couple laid flowers at the gate yesterday as a way of remembering their good friend.

"He only started there three months ago.

"He was sort of iffy. He liked the work but he was a bit iffy about being down there.

"I'm just hoping they can get all the bodies out."

Corson's great-grandfather, John McCormick, died in the Brunner mine disaster in 1896 along with 64 others.

- Sunday Star Times

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