Pike River: 'My son deserves a burial'

By Jarrod Booker, Hayden Donnell

Smoke billows from the ventilation shaft after the fourth explosion in the Pike River coal mine. Photo / NZPA
Smoke billows from the ventilation shaft after the fourth explosion in the Pike River coal mine. Photo / NZPA

Families of the Pike River dead are vowing to blockade the West Coast mine if coal extraction starts before the bodies of their loved ones are recovered.

Mine buyers Solid Energy last night told families the company was committed, along with the Government, to a body recovery if it is "safe, technically feasible and financially credible to do so''.

But the dead men's families said company officials told them there was only a 5 to 10 per cent likelihood of a successful recovery - and any operation could be years away.

Their spokesman Bernie Monk, who lost his 23-year-old son Michael in a series of explosions at Pike River, said he was "mad as hell" about a recovery hinging on cash considerations.

He felt Government had lied to families by guaranteeing it would do anything in its power to retrieve bodies from the mine.

Families were pursuing legal options, talking to unions and would consider blockading the mine if a body recovery was not carried out before production began, he said.

"I'll go up there myself if it comes to it. I'll go up there myself.

"I'm friggin spewing. I've lost faith in all this. But I'm not going to give up... I want my son home for my family. My son deserves a burial."

Mr Monk said families felt they had been put back in the same position they were in "four days after the explosion".

Green Party MP Kevin Hague, who is based on the West Coast, said making the recovery dependent on financial considerations was wrong.

"Pike River is a tragedy of national significance. To sully the tragedy by making body recovery contingent on commercial viability reduces its importance to the whole country.

"The Government should honour its commitment to recover the bodies regardless of commercial deals."

West Coast Labour MP Damien O'Connor said families had a right to feel let down.

"I think it's gut wrenching for the families who have been given so much hope, been offered so many promises, but have seen so little action - especially when they've been told that everything that could be done, would be done.

"West Coasters... are people that take people on their word. At the end they feel totally let down and gutted by empty rhetoric and empty promises."

Mr O'Connor called for Government to support any recovery effort with cash or resources.

Minister of Energy and Resources Phil Heatley last night said the Government was committed to the recovery of remains "as long as it means no further risk to human life''.

Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder said it could take some years to determine whether there is a viable commercial mining opportunity in the Pike River coalfield, and therefore a realistic chance of recovering remains.

If there was one thing that had been confirmed by the tragedy, it was that the West Coast geology and mining conditions were among the hardest in the world, he said.

"We looked at all reasonable options, and we're committed to taking all reasonable steps to bring the men home to their families. But we will not risk further tragedy in doing so. We know this is not the news some of the family members were hoping for, but it is the right answer and the only realistic answer.''

Mr Monk said now that Dr Elder had given the families the "worst outlook'', they would now go away and talk to their own experts and lawyers, with a view to further discussions with Solid Energy.

"It just bought it home to the families the outlook that it could be six or seven years before they ever get down there past the rockfall (where the men are believed to have died) to do any mining. If they decide to do any there.''

Anna Osborne, who lost her husband Milton in the mine, said it was difficult hearing the reality of the situation facing the families.

"But we are going to get down and get our men out - I'm not giving up.''

Solid Energy had entered into an agreement with the Government that sets out the roles each would play in body recovery efforts, while a trust may be established to oversee implementation of any such activities.

Pike River Coal went into receivership a month after the fatal explosions, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have overseen stalled efforts to "reclaim'' the tunnel into the mine since then.

PwC partner John Fisk said last night settlement of the mine sale was expected to take place in July or later depending on the granting of various ministerial consents, other approvals and documentation relating to the agreement on recovery of remains.

"We will continue to maintain the mine in a safe and stable condition whilst assisting Solid Energy to work through the conditions of the sale,'' Mr Fisk said.

The mine tragedy is the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry that is required to report its findings to the Governor General by September 28.

- NZ Herald

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