Pike families abandon body recovery fight

By 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

The families of the 29 men who died inside the Pike River mine have called off their efforts to secure a recovery operation for the bodies of their loved ones.

Alan Monk, whose 23-year-old brother Michael died at Pike River, said mining experts working for Solid Energy and the families had "locked horns" over the possibility of a recovery operation in a meeting this week.

They had assured families there was no safe way to enter the inner workings of the mine - where most of the bodies are believed to be - without risking lives, he said.

"That was never what the families have wanted. The risk to human life is just too great to go do anything. This has been the first time that anyone has got together and locked horns and looked at the big picture and said 'this is it'."

Families have been relentless in their campaign for a recovery operation since being told their loved ones died in the explosion which ripped through the Pike River mine in November 2010.

Michael's mother Kath Monk said she was now resolved to the possibility of her son never coming out of the mine.

She would use a memorial established in Greymouth for the Pike River dead and a special area of remembrance in their home in place of a burial lot.

"When I've thought of Michael, I don't think of him in the mine. I know that his remains are there but Michael the person - the beautiful smile, the man that he was who loved his rugby, his mates, who loved his All Blacks and his girlfriend... we are going to meet in the next stage, in heaven."

Mrs Monk said many of the families were devastated at the realisation their loved ones would not be recovered.

Despite that, they had no regrets about the efforts they had put into campaigning for a recovery over the last 18 months, she said.

"We've done our absolute best with what we've had to try and achieve a recovery and we can all put our hands up and tell our men that we've done our best for that and that will rest easier with us."

Mr Monk said the families had always said if someone looked them "in the eye" and told them a recovery was impossible they would stop their efforts.

"This is what anyone who has lost a family member would do. You keep trying until you know for sure."

Mine buyers Solid Energy earlier said 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 company officials told families there was only a 5 to 10 per cent likelihood of a successful recovery - and any operation could be years away.

Prime Minister John Key said there was still hope of recovering the remains of the 29 men.

"I still think there is very much a chance and that was why I made it a condition of sale.

"If Solid Energy can get into Pike River for coal extraction then that's the very best chance we've got of any form of body recovery.''

He said Solid Energy's chief executive Don Elder told families the chance of a standalone operation to recover the men was "extremely remote''.

"I think we have understood that for some time. But that's the very reason why a sale of Pike River to Solid Energy is very important because what we can't rule out is the possibility they get into the mine because of mining operations.

"Now I know that is still also a difficult possibility, or remote, but not impossible.''

He added that a tiny bit of hope had "always been there''.

Key said he had not continually raised and then dashed the hopes of the grieving families.

"I think I have always been realistic. I've always said to the families the best chance of getting into the mine and for body recovery was aligned with the possibility of there being a sale of the mine.''

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