"Upside down, mate," Anna Osbourne said to Sonya Rockhouse when she saw Rockhouse holding the photo of her son Ben the wrong way up.

Actually, after eight long years, things must finally have felt the right way up for the two women who lost a husband and a son in the Pike River disaster in 2010.

Rockhouse, Osborne and Bernie Monk had just watched as the minister responsible for the Pike River Agency, Andrew Little, announced a plan to re-enter the drift at Pike River Mine is to go ahead.

Pike River Mine re-entry to go ahead - first major task likely to begin in February 2019.

They would have known in advance, but hearing it out loud and publicly is a different thing altogether. They stood holding photos of Rockhouse's son Ben, Osbourne of her husband Milton and Monk of his son Michael. All had died on that day in 2010.

As Little said the words "the re-entry of the Pike River Mine will proceed", Rockhouse and Osborne looked at each other and gulped with emotion. They smiled in relief.

Rockhouse's arm went around Osborne, their faces turned upward in a bid to stop tears, and then all three turned and engulfed each other in a hug.

As they stood silently hugging, Little spoke on, about the extra funding required, the technicalities of pumping in nitrogen, of boreholes, timelines, safety precautions, the work that lay ahead.

For the eight years since the explosion that took the lives of those men in the photos Rockhouse, Osborne and Monk held, they had been told it could not be done.

They had stood defiant as politician after politician traipsed over to the West Coast, former Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English offering excuses for why it could not be done.

Then came other politicians too, with promises made in the heat of an election campaign which the families must have barely dared to believe.

They came from NZ First leader Winston Peters and then Little. After Little came Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the Greens, United Future and the Māori Party.


So many politicians, so many promises.

Finally, yesterday, a "beginning" as Rockhouse put it.

"We are just at the beginning now, but the beginning is better than we've ever had before."

The Prime Minister was not there for the announcement, nor was Peters. Both were overseas. After the decision to go ahead was approved by Cabinet on Monday, it was also decided that after waiting eight years, the families should not have to wait even a week longer just so the PM could be there for the announcement.

For Little, too, the occasion was noteworthy. He was former head of the miners' union.

After saying he would look again at re-entry, he was accused of being reckless, of playing politics, giving false hope, toying with the emotions of the families and proposing to put the lives of others at risk.

There was a distinct suspicion the promise to the people of Pike River was one of those things that was said in Opposition but dismissed in Government.

Little did add caveats when he agreed to the re-entry plan on Wednesday.

He spoke of it as an "extraordinarily complex undertaking". He said safety was "paramount". He read from the Pike Agency's Report to him a paragraph that said a lot remained unknown: "this will require agile thinking, the courage of all to say NO if we are uncomfortable ... and knowing when to call it quits".

It made it clear it was still far from a risk-free proposition and there were no guarantees the answers those Pike families seek will be delivered when that re-entry goes ahead early next year.

But on a sunny Wednesday in a meeting room in Parliament, the only three words that mattered were those uttered by Little: "we are returning".