Editorial: Certainty is what Pike families need

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Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

Families of the Pike River miners have been given hope that steps will be taken to recover their remains.

It is not clear who has given them this hope. It arose from a meeting in Christchurch on Monday arranged by representatives of the families with the police, Mines Rescue officials and the mine's receivers.

An elaborate plan was outlined that would allow the mine to be entered by means of airtight seals constructed every few hundred metres along the 2.3km main shaft, to a point where the shaft is blocked by a rockfall.

There, a tunnel 180m long would be dug to bypass the rockfall and possibly reach the shafts where the bodies of at least two of the 29 miners appear to be intact, despite the explosions and fire that have engulfed the mine since November.

The status of this plan is not clear. The families' spokesman, Bernie Monk, believed work would start as soon as Monday to build a temporary seal just inside the mine entrance.

(Last night, that plan was put back at least a week.) The Grey District Mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, was equally encouraged, though he warned that the work would take six months. But comments from the police, Pike River Coal's receivers and lawyers at the meeting were more circumspect, and the Prime Minister knew nothing about it.

Nevertheless, Mr Key said the Government would be willing to pay for work to recover the miners' remains if he is given a plan that is credible and safe. It is time to be realistic about this.

Nobody holds any hope that anyone is still alive in the mine. The victims of this industrial accident are entombed in their workplace much like crew of a lost ship or aircraft, and victims of mine disasters everywhere. The main hope of recovering the remains lies in the possibility that the mine might be brought back into operation.

A spokesman for the receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, says they have set aside $5 million for work to ventilate the mine and stabilise its atmosphere. He says he is confident that, weather and technical advice permitting, the mine can be rendered sufficiently safe by the end of July.

At that point, all parties would examine the feasibility of recovering the miners' remains. That appears to have been the extent of the agreement on Monday and the cause of the families' hope. The receivers must ensure that the promised ventilation work starts as soon as possible.

If the mine can ever be safely re-entered, the recovery of the bodies will be the first wish of all concerned, including the receivers, since nobody will resume mining until it has been cleared of human remains. But at the same time, the mine must be left in a condition that permits a thorough investigation for the purposes of the royal commission of inquiry into the causes of the disaster.

It is far too soon for Mr Key to commit public money to the recovery of bodies while the re-opening of the mine is in the commercial interests of the company's creditors and shareholders.

The cost is properly a charge on Pike River Coal and the receivers should not be tempted with the possibility that if they wait long enough, taxpayers will pick up the cost for the sake of the families.

The whole country feels for the families who have been waiting six months to learn whether anything remains of those who went to work on November 19 and never returned.

But if the mine cannot be rendered safe to work again, it is likely that the remains of their loved ones will stay where they are. No doubt the grieving will be able to accept that; all they need now is certainty. Let us hope that in another two months, the company their men served can give them that much.

- NZ Herald

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