Pike River mining families welcome plan
One shot at recovery is all Bernie Monk ever wanted.
The usually resolute spokesman for bereaved Pike River coalmine families struggled to contain his emotions yesterday after long-awaited news the Government would fund a $7.2 million tunnel re-entry.
After nearly three years of pleading for help, families of 29 men killed were told in Greymouth that Cabinet had given the project the green light.
"We mightn't get the results in a few months time but at least we've had a shot and that's all I asked is one go at going down the mine, and we're going to get it," Monk said.
No rescuers have ventured further than 300 metres into the mine's 2.3 kilometre tunnel since the November 2010 disaster.
Monk said it was an intense relief to have the Government's backing after so many blows.
"There's been a lot of tears shed over these meetings. People don't realise in New Zealand the tears that have been lost by a lot of the families. To see the smiles on their faces brings a tear to my eyes really."
There was a remote possibility some men's bodies could be found in the far end of the tunnel, perishing while fleeing the blast.
Tunnel recovery was an essential step in determining whether a body recovery bid into the mine's main working area could occur, he said.
Pike widow Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton Osborne was killed in the explosion, said families had expected Cabinet's approval because so much work had been done on the tunnel re-entry plan.
"It's actually quite exciting now to know that it's actually been given the tick to go ahead."
While the plan did not include re-entering the main body of the mine, where most, if not all of the men's bodies remained, it did not rule it out either.
"At this stage, it's just re-entering the drift but we've got to take it as a positive and something to smile about, finally," Osborne said.
"I'm trying to not get too excited because we've been kicked in the guts a few times but fingers crossed this time and see how it goes."
However, re-entering the mine's main area for body recovery remained important for many families, she said.
"None of us have had closure yet and for the majority of families, closure is what we need to finally put it to rest and put it behind us."
Rowdy Durbridge, father of Daniel Herk, 36, who was killed in the blast, said the news of the Government's support had come three years too late "but now at least we're starting today".
"No-one is doing cartwheels but it's one of the most positive meetings we've had."
Monk, whose son Michael, 23, died in the underground West Coast coalmine, had worked tirelessly to push for a re-entry into the mine's tunnel after efforts stalled about two years ago.
In July 2011, Mines Rescue Trust finished building a temporary seal along the tunnel and erected double steel doors at the mine's entrance to control gases.
At the time, they walked 300m along the tunnel and pinned a poignant note to the dead miners telling them they would return to get them out.
Last November, three international mining experts came to the West Coast to help families to develop a re-entry plan.
At that time, Monk collared Prime Minister John Key at a meeting and told him in he would not rest until at least the tunnel had been re-entered.
"I told him we would be still talking about it in 10 years and that we weren't going to go away."
It was a turning point with Key agreeing with Monk to push for experts from all sides to meet and work on a re-entry plan, pledging $10 million towards it as long as it was a safe, technically feasible and financially credible plan.
The mine's former receiver, John Fisk, of PWC, said yesterday the tunnel re-entry was put on hold once it began negotiating the mine's sale to Solid Energy.
"That was part of the negotiations that Solid Energy would be going to take over the tunnel re-entry plans."
It signed a conditional sale and purchase agreement with the state-owned enterprise in March last year.
Solid Energy's project manager for the tunnel re-entry, Mark Pizey, said work would start on re-entering the tunnel within the next two months and would take about six months to complete.
However, it was weather dependent because the mine's remote location meant any materials needed would be brought in by helicopter.
He said trials were held in Australia two months ago to test the tunnel sealant, a concrete-like product called Rocsil, that would be used at Pike River.
New Zealand's chief mines inspector, Tony Forster, said the high hazards unit approved the plan. A lot of work had gone into ensuring the re-entry would be safe and avoided exposing people to unnecessary risk.
"We believe this is the safest plan that is possible to put together. Nothing is absolutely completely safe but this is as safe as it's going to get because this will be a fresh air re-entry of this tunnel. It's a practicable plan, it's a reasonable plan and I believe it's a safe plan."
ENTRY PLAN A WIN FOR FAMILIES
The Government announced yesterday it would stump up with the $7.2 million needed for Solid Energy's plan to re-enter Pike River coalmine's tunnel.
It will start within the next two months and will take about six months to complete.
By then, the third anniversary will have passed of the explosion that killed 29 men in the underground West Coast coalmine on November 19, 2010.
It is hard not to concur with family sentiments that the Government should have opened its coffers sooner.
The devastating series of blasts not only took 29 lives but also exploded New Zealand's international reputation as a developed mining country.
But even the 10-week royal commission into the disaster was unable to find what definitely caused the fatal blast because nobody had ventured further than 300 metres into the mine to work that out.
The Government's belated offer is largely thanks to the determination of one grieving father - Bernie Monk of Paroa.
The father-of-three lost his son Michael, 23, in the blast and has dedicated his life to getting him and his 28 colleagues out of the mine.
Other families agree he has galvanised their efforts.
Monk's determination has resulted in him being sent hate mail by people critical of his desire to see the men laid to rest in dignity and where their families choose.
He admits he has begged the Government for years to step in to help but wants to focus on the positives of yesterday's announcement.
Money has always been a problem at Pike.
When the mine first exploded that disastrous day in 2010, its owner, Pike River Coal, was in a precarious financial situation.
Receivers took over within weeks of the blasts but unstable gas levels prevented rescue attempts.
In the blasts' aftermath, Prime Minister John Key indicated the Government would fund efforts to get the men out but slowly his words faded.
Instead, the receivers paid for Mines Rescue Trust personnel to re-enter the tunnel in June 2011, when they built a temporary seal 170m along the tunnel and erec-ted double steel doors at its entrance.
At the time, they walked 300m along the tunnel, the furthest rescuers had reached to date.
While work continued on a plan to reclaim the tunnel, which was almost identical to that approved this week, negotiations to sell the mine to Solid Energy stalled that work early last year.
After the sale, the state-owned enterprise swiftly made it clear to Pike families that body recovery was virtually impossible because it was too dangerous.
Within months, its financial downfall made it even less likely it could afford to re-enter Pike's tunnel.
Last November, Monk organised three international mining experts to come to New Zealand to help Pike families develop a re-entry plan.
It proved a vital turning point.
He had a stern word with Prime Minister John Key about that time, which seemed to do the trick.
Soon afterwards, Key pledged $10m to fund a safe re-entry plan and backed Monk's call for experts from both sides to join forces to work on it.
An enormous amount of work had gone on behind the scenes by Solid Energy, government officials and international mining experts to reach the point where a plan could be handed to the Government for funding.
Some families believe their loved ones' bodies will be found in the tunnel.
Ultimately, the mine tunnel may hold secrets that will solve one of the most tragic mysteries this country has experienced.
PIKE RIVER TIMELINE
May 23, 2011: Families meet police, Pike River receivers PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Mines Rescue in Christchurch to discuss a mission to recover the bodies. A feasibility study is to be done.
June 22, 2011: Prime Minister John Key hints during a visit to Australia that the sale of the mine will be conditional on an agreement to recover the bodies.
September 22, 2011: Pike River families meet Key in Greymouth to be told that a licence would be withheld when the mine was sold unless a plan had been agreed to recover the bodies.
July 18, 2012: Solid Energy acquires the assets of Pike River Coal for $7.5 million.
October 9, 2012: Key meets Bernie Monk in Greymouth and agrees to reconsider providing Government help to the recovery of the bodies.
November 5, 2012: Key apologises to Pike River families upon the release of the findings of the Royal Commission into the disaster.
December 14, 2012: Key apologises to the Pike River families during a meeting in Greymouth.
February 27, 2013: Solid Energy and the Pike River families table a report of mining and safety experts to a working group on the recovery of the bodies in Christchurch.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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