Tuesday 16 January 2018

New Zealand disaster: recovery of bodies could take weeks

Bonnie Malkin

Families of the 29 men believed to have died in the Pike River mine have been warned that they face a long wait before the bodies of their loved ones can be brought to the surface.

One day after a second "enormous" explosion ripped through the mine, wiping out hope that any of the men could have survived, a sombre meeting of relatives was told that the recovery operation would be painfully slow.

Before teams can be sent in to look for the remains of the missing miners, who have not been heard from since an initial blast on Friday, dangerous gases within the mine must be pumped out.

Peter Whittall, the Pike River chief executive, said three options for making the mine safe were being considered.

All involved pumping new gases into the mine and removing the oxygen. Rescue teams using breathing equipment could then enter the mine.

"Even if we move really quickly it can take days to make the mine safe, if we can do that it can then take a week or more to enter the mine, if we then located the men it can still take a couple of weeks to recover them," he said.

"This isn't going to happen in the next couple of days, it will still be weeks before we get closure for us and the families."

John Key, the prime minister, arrived in Greymouth on Thursday morning to meet the bereaved families.

In a response to anger from the relatives of the deceased, Mr Key said the government would launch a full inquiry into the disaster that would "leave no stone unturned."

"The families have accepted that their loved ones aren't coming home and they want answers and they want their men to be recovered from the mine so they can have the appropriate funerals," he said.

"There are some basic questions that need to be answered, what caused the explosion, what could have been done to prevent that, did we run the rescue effort as it should have been run."

Mr Key said a national memorial would be held in Christchurch and a local event would also take place in Greymouth.

Several funds have been set up to provide financial support for families left without their main breadwinner.

Mr Whittall, who has been widely lauded for his leadership and dedication during the crisis, said he was "feeling pretty bad at a personal level" and that his team was exhausted.

But he said thoughts at the mine site had turned to bringing the bodies of the men out as fast as possible.

While samples from the mine were still showing high levels of methane, indicating that there was still a sizable reservoir of dangerous gas underground and the risk of another blast, Mr Whittall said plans for entering the mine were being laid.

There were three options for making the mine safe, which involved using nitrogen or water vapour to disperse the dangerous methane, he said.

The streets of Greymouth were quiet on Thursday as the community dealt with the loss of 29 men.

Tony Kokshoorn, the Grey District mayor, said above all the relatives of the men, including two Britons, wanted the bodies of the men to be taken out of the mine.

"They are looking for closure and they want the men to be returned to them so that we can go on with the grieving process."


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