The first images from inside the New Zealand’s Pike river mine, where an explosion killed 29 men nearly nine years ago, have been released.
The shots were taken as a three-person re-entry crew broke through the 88cm concrete seal on Tuesday at the mine’s opening to start the process of gathering evidence on what caused New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since 1914. The bodies of the 29 victims remain in the mine.
The images inside the drift, or passageway, show a lot of groundwater has accumulated inside the mine on the South Island’s west coast. A $36m operation managed by the Pike River Recovery Agency is now working to increase the ventilation in the mine to allow workers to venture deeper to where human remains are thought to be.
On Tuesday, the families of the victims gathered outside the mine entrance to release 29 yellow balloons and call out the names of those who died when the concrete plug sealing off the mine was breached.
Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the disaster, said it was “amazing” to witness. “It was so emotional, we couldn’t contain our tears … Just seeing the concrete being pulled from the portal and the men going in and thinking ‘they are doing that for us’.”
Sonya Rockhouse, whose son Ben died in the mine and other son Daniel survived, said the process of opening the mine seemed so quick. “Why did it take eight-and-a-half years?”
The entry into the mine drift is just the start of a process which is expected to take until December.
The re-entry was led by the Pike River Recovery Agency’s chief operating officer, Dinghy Pattinson, who is one of the country’s most experienced miners.
He was followed by mine deputy Kirk Neilson and geotechnical engineer Chris Lee through double airlock doors and into the mine drift.
Their eventual goal is to reach area known as “the rockfall”, about 2.3km into the mine. That is expected to take about five months.
Re-entry was an election promise for Labour, the Greens and NZ First.
in 2012, the then National-led government and state-owned mining company Solid Energy took over the mine from Pike River Coal liquidators and determined that a manned re-entry could not be done safely.