Mine families vow to fight on

AMY GLASS, BELINDA MCCAMMON AND NZPA
Last updated 13:15 15/01/2011

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Pike River Disaster

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LATEST: Families of the 29 Pike River Coal mine victims have asked Police Commissioner Howard Broad to carry on with efforts to retrieve their loved ones' remains.

They have also demanded answers about the police decision to hand over the recovery operation to the mine's receivers.

The families have the backing of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) for the decision to seal the mine to be put on hold.

Families' spokesman Bernie Monk, who lost a son in the disaster, said today they believed Mr Broad and Prime Minister John Key were given the wrong information when they said it was too dangerous to carry on with the body recovery.

Two days ago Mr Broad said the police recovery operation was ending and the mine would be handed over to the receivers with the bodies of the 29 miners and contractors still inside.

Yesterday Mr Key said the recovery operation had failed and experts had told him it was not possible to recover the bodies and that the mine would probably be sealed.

But Mr Monk said he was concerned that the decision had been rushed. He said the Australian GAG machine had done its job to make the mine safe by reducing the methane gas level and for the last three or four days safety levels had been improving.

"There have been massive improvements up there,'' he said. ``The guys up there have said to us it is at a safe level. They are not far off actually going in there to get these blokes out.'' Yet, Mr Key claimed yesterday that the GAG machine "has blown its guts''.

Mr Monk said he believed Mr Key was getting false information from the wrong people.

"I think he has got the wrong experts there in place and that is it in a nutshell.'' Mr Monk said the families needed their own gas and mine expert, Harry Bell who had worked on West Coast mines for more than 40 years, to be running the recovery and give police the advice they needed. He said the families wanted to know from the police who made the decision to abandon the body recovery programme, and where and how they got their information.

"The families have been kept out of the loop on this.'' Yesterday Mr Key said they had no other options on the recovery. ``It's not working. That has actually failed and the mine rescue teams from Australia and New Zealand have refused to go into the mine,'' he said. Mr Monk said the crucial facts that warranted putting the decision to seal the mine on hold were:

* The mine was understood to now be stable and had been for some days;

* The GAG machine had therefore successfully completed its work;

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* The first phase of the recovery operation had been successfully completed and preparations for the second re-entry phrase could now commence.

"These elements appear to have been ignored in the decision taken despite the request to urgently reassess the position,'' he said.

"There seems something seriously flawed in the decision, and a failure to consider or properly evaluate these facts.'' Mr Monk said EPMU national secretary Andrew Little was backing the families to the hilt.

 Families to fight on 

The angry families of the lost Pike River workers are fighting to have the coalmine reopened.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that the mine would be sealed. The recovery plan had failed and there was no credible way to retrieve the bodies of the 29 men trapped in the West Coast mine since a series of explosions in November.

Key defended the police, who said on Thursday that they were ending their efforts to recover the bodies.

The families' spokesman, Bernie Monk, whose son Michael Monk died in the disaster, could not contain his anger after Key's statement.

"It's a bloody sad day for New Zealand. They have not come to the families at all," he said. "How the hell are we going to get the truth if they don't go in? This is terrible what they have done to us.

"We will not leave it at that. We are fighting this decision all the way."

He said the lawyer for the families, Nicholas Davidson, QC, wrote to Police Commissioner Howard Broad yesterday asking for an immediate postponement of any decision, pending further consultation.

Monk said the families were already "extremely distressed and confused" by what they called abrupt and conflicting news from Broad on Thursday. It was clear the police were not aware of recent positive developments at the mine, he said.

"We do not understand Mines Rescue Trust to have agreed to this decision, and we believe the decision has been taken without taking into account considerable successes in the past few days in stabilising the mine atmosphere," Monk said.

Recent mine camera footage is understood by the families to show that the devastation in the mine was less than first thought.

"There is excellent resolution of material in the mine to demonstrate how valuable re-entry would be for the purpose of the inquiry and which is, in turn, relevant to the recovery attempts," Monk said.

Key said he would have no problem talking to family members on a planned visit to the West Coast next month.

"My experience of dealing with the families is that they're suffering a lot of pain, but, for the most part, they're extremely realistic," he said.

"The Government was fully committed to doing everything we could to making sure the bodies were removed and that full closure could be achieved for those families, but that's just not possible, and it's not an issue of money or time or commitment."

He denied promising family members that the victims' remains would be recovered.

"I never promised anyone we would get the bodies out," he said. "We promised family members that we would do everything we could to get the bodies out. We have done everything that we believe we possibly can."

John Fisk, of Pike River Coal receiver PricewaterhouseCoopers, said yesterday that the firm was "still considering the option of eventually reopening the mine so that it can again be a major employer and contribute substantially to the West Coast economy".

- The Press

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