14 Jan 2011

Families shocked Pike River mine to be sealed

10:31 pm on 14 January 2011

Families of the men who died in the Pike River Coal disaster say they are shocked by the Prime Minister's statement that the mine is to be closed without retrieving their loved ones' remains.

Twenty-nine workers died in a series of explosions which began at the West Coast mine near Greymouth on 19 November last year.

Prime Minister John Key said on Friday he believes that everything possible has been done to recover the workers' remains and the only option now is to seal the mine, and it is likely this will be permanent.

Relatives of some of the workers say the police decision on Thursday to stop their recovery operation has been made too quickly and they are devastated.

Spokesperson Bernie Monk says the announcement came without warning and in circumstances that caused the families extreme distress, confusion and hurt.

Mr Monk says the families have had no communication directly with the Prime Minister or the police about sealing the mine.

"We're all in a state of shock here and the way they've gone about it is a sad day for New Zealand as far as I'm concerned."

Mr Monk says the lawyer acting for the families has asked Police Commissioner Howard Broad to delay ending the recovery operation until they can hire a very senior and experienced West Coast mining expert to advise them.

He says the families are not unrealistic, but a decision of such consequence should be made only with an accurate and up-to-date appraisal of facts and a full understanding of the expert opinions.

PM stands by police decision

The families feel the Prime Minister has back-tracked on his promise to ensure that every effort was made to get the remains out.

But Mr Key says he stands 100% behind the police decision to stop their recovery efforts.

Mr Key says engines on the GAG machine being used to help neutralise toxic gases in the mine have burnt out, and mine rescue teams from New Zealand and Australia have refused to enter the mine because it is too unsafe.

"If it was simply an issue of money we would continue with the process - but the issue is, that it's not working. The machine's burnt out, the mine is not inert, the mine's rescue people will not go in ... there's no indication that they will.

"And this isn't an unusual environment. Internationally, when you've had explosions of this magnitude, very often mines are sealed."

Police Commissioner Howard Broad said on Friday the operation has cost about $5 million to date.

Government accused of passing buck

The Labour Party says the Government has badly handled the decision to end the police recovery operation.

Leader Phil Goff says leaving it up to the receivers to continue any recovery effort leaves the families in limbo and the Government is passing the buck.

"It feels very much like they're trying to drip-feed the bad news so it doesn't all come at once.

"That's not what Coasters want - they want to know the truth, they want it straight and they want somebody to accept responsibility."

An inquest will open in Greymouth on 27 January, while a Royal Commission will begin its inquiry into the tragedy later in the year.