COMMENT:

The burning question on the minds of the families of the 29 miners who perished at Pike River eight years ago next week will have been: Did they die after the first explosion? There were three more blasts after the initial one.

If you suddenly lose a loved one in tragic circumstances, as I have, it's a question that burns on your mind: whether they died instantly or whether they survived long enough to fear what was going to happen. You hope it was sudden.

The families will be relieved this morning when the Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-Entry, Andrew Little, announced a recovery operation will commence early next year. It'll give the loved ones some idea of what actually happened as those who go in gather forensic evidence.

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Unfortunately the likelihood of finding remains is remote and the families will probably have accepted that by now.

The nation grieved with the families after the explosion ripped through the mine shortly before 4pm on November 19, 2010. We all held out hope that some of the miners may have survived, given that two of them managed to walk out after the explosion. That hope was dashed five days later when a second blast put the possibility of life beyond doubt.

The families were at a briefing in Greymouth when they were told of the second explosion and many fell to the ground in grief realising any hope they did have was gone.

Their grief over time rightly turned to anger as poor safety in the mine came to light and their embrace of the mine company's boss Peter Whittall turned to revulsion and then understandably to loathing when he faced health and safety charges. They were later dropped, with prosecutors saying there was insufficient evidence to secure a prosecution.

Instead he and the company made a payment to the families.

So this sorry saga moves a step towards giving the families closure, hopefully to give them an idea of how, why and what happened on that dreadful West Coast day.

The politicians are far from covered in glory, with then prime minister John Key apologising to the families for weak mining regulations and an inadequate inspection regime in a deregulated industry. Key's Labour Minister resigned when the royal commission found the Labour Department had failed to prevent the tragedy.

And ironically it was argued the union, which had several members who perished in the mine that day, didn't do enough itself to prevent it. The leader of the union at the time was Andrew Little, who's gone some way to redeeming himself today.