Yesterday, nearly 8 years to the day since Pike River coal mine exploded, the decision was announced to re-enter the mine. The decision, which whilst a long time coming and delayed numerous times is a step in the right direction for the families of the dead and for New Zealand.
Pike River exploded on 19 November 2010 trapping 29 miners in the mine. Five days later anyone who had survived the first explosion in the mine would have been killed by a second significantly more powerful explosion. Since the explosion the decision whether or not to enter the mine has been fraught with difficulty and controversy.
The previous National-led Government believed it was too dangerous to try to re-enter the mine and opted for it to be sealed off with the deceased permanently entombed in it. They pointed to the high risk of another explosion if attempts were made to establish another entry point, or go down the existing drift.
Suggestions were made that a robot should be sent down the drift to see how far it is actually possible to go before determining whether or not humans can be sent down. Numerous robots were sent down and they had mixed results. Two army robots stopped working 800 metres into the tunnel and 1050 metres respectively. A video of a third robot going down was withheld by the police, and shows that the robot starts to overheat, but does not explode or catch fire because the atmosphere is inert – to have a flame there needs to be oxygen, and the fact that it fails to suggests it was 100% methane. The third robot got 1570 metres down the tunnel before stopping because its way was blocked by a loader that one of the miners had been operating when it exploded.
Despite the video, the then National led Government continued to insist that it was too dangerous, that the methane meant the risk of explosion is too high. This suggests to me either a deliberate ignorance of how explosions work.
For the families this wait would have been long, painful and mentally exhausting. For years now whilst politicians have fiddled over the Pike River mine they have had to go through life in some ways in a state of pause whilst they wait and hope for their men folk for whom this should have been just another day working in the mine. Instead it turned into New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since the Brunner Mine disaster where 65 miners were killed in March 1896, which was caused by a similar mechanism to that in the Pike River disaster.
So, I welcome the decision to go back into the mine and see if the recovery of the bodies is possible. I hope this makes people realize that unless experts say it is impracticable or physically impossible, that such events as this are explored as far as physically possible before anyone deceased as a result is written off as permanently missing.