Families of the 29 victims of the Pike River mine tragedy have experienced further "heartbreak'' with news that any recovery of workers' remains may be several years off, if it happens at all.
With Solid Energy last night confirming it is in the final stages of purchase of the mine - where explosions killed the 29 workers in November 2010 - the workers' families were told the state-owned mining company was committed, along with the Government, to recovering any remains of the men if it was "safe, technically feasible and financially credible to do so''.
But families said they were last night quoted a figure of only 5 to 10 per cent likelihood of a successful recovery of the mens' remains by Solid Energy, which will pay an initial purchase price of $7.5 million for the mine, and a further $25 million by instalment commencing when coal extraction reaches a certain level.
"We went in with some hope, but we got a reality check,'' said families' spokesman Bernie Monk, whose son Michael, 23, died in the mine.
The meeting between the families and Solid Energy last night started off with chief executive Don Elder giving the families an outlook "that we weren't happy with'', Mr Monk said.
"And the families were emotionally upset that there could be a chance that we will never, ever get the guys out.''
"A lot of people were just heartbroken. The whole 18 months of what we have had to put up with is just a reality. We are no better off than we were 18 months ago.''
"We always thought that we are not going to get everyone out. But now everyone is on the same playing field that we may not get anyone out.''
Dr 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.
Minister of Energy and Resources Phil Heatley said the Government was committed to the recovery of remains "as long as it means no further risk to human life''.
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.