Pike families hope for mine entry

A milestone meeting of mining experts today to work out body recovery plans for Pike River coalmine has ended with still more planning needed.

Mining experts met in Christchurch this morning to discuss re-entering the mine to recover bodies of the 29 men killed.

The group includes two representatives from the Government's High Hazards Unit, two from police, six for Pike families, nine from Solid Energy, three from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, and Mines Rescue Trust's general manager.

Spokesman for most Pike families Bernie Monk said the meeting of 21 experts had been positive. However, he said any re-entry plan had to be safe.

He predicted it would be months but not years before the mine's 2.3km tunnel would be re-entered, the first step towards recovering the men's bodies.

A statement by Pike River drift exploration group said it would continue to assess potential ways to explore the tunnel, where some Pike families believed some of the bodies lay.

"Once there is general agreement about the preferred option further work will be needed on variou selements to firm the plan up.

Potentially explosive conditions inside the underground West Coast mine prevented any rescue attempts after the first fatal blast on November 19, 2010.

One of the robots sent into the mine soon after the explosion reached about 1500m along the tunnel and its camera footage showed no bodies, which left about 800m unexplored where men fleeing the explosion could have died.

One of the two survivors, Daniel Rockhouse, was about 2km along the tunnel when the mine exploded.

Since that fatal day, mines rescue had only reached 300m along the mine's 2.3km tunnel while they were building the temporary seal in June 2011.

Both the families and Solid Energy had developed plans for the tunnel re-entry stage of recovery efforts.

"Solid's plan is a bit different to ours but I don't see any problems in getting some sort of agreement," said Monk, who lost his son Michael, 23, in the fatal explosion.

He said families had been very frustrated efforts to re-enter the tunnel stalled in mid-2011 after a temporary seal was erected 170m along the tunnel and permanent steel doors were placed at the mine's entrance.

Tunnel re-entry would help to decide whether body recovery was possible in the mine's main working area, where most, if not all, of the men remained, Monk said.

The families' experts believed it was possible but Government experts disagreed.

In December, Prime Minister John Key wrote to Pike families to support their pleas for experts from all sides to meet, acknowledging the families' frustration over the experts' disagreement on body recovery options.

At the time, Key confirmed the Government would fund an exploration of the mine's 2.3km tunnel if a safe, technically feasible and financially credible plan was developed that the High Hazards Unit backed.

He wanted experts from all sides to meet to gain a consensus so the families got "closure one way or another as soon as reasonably possible".

"I am concerned that unless all of the various experts are involved, there will simply be a continuation of the current divergent views and progress will continue to be slow."

However, he said his experts maintained body recovery was impossible and it was unlikely.

The Press