Minister says “very low probability of recovery” of Pike River bodies

Andrew Little, the Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry, has said what was obvious to many people, there “very low probability of recovery” of bodies from the Pike River mine. This is despite the cost of re-entry doubling, but Little also says he won’t seek any more funds.

NZ Herald – Pike River: Andrew Little says it is ‘just impractical’ to expect all bodies to be recovered

Andrew Little, says it is “just impractical” to expect the remains of all of the fallen miners to be recovered.

Instead, the re-entry efforts are now essentially solely focused on gathering evidence in the “homicide of 29 men”, Little told a select committee hearing this morning.

Speaking to MPs this morning, Little also revealed that there would be no further funding for re-entry.

“There is always a limit to these things – I have no plan or intention of returning to Cabinet for any further additional resources.”

He likened the recovery efforts to a police homicide investigation – “which is effectively what this is”.

He said the average homicide investigation is between $2m and $3m.

“We’re looking at the homicide of 29 men.”

This sounds like a new justification for the expense from Little.

Little said the cost to date can be justified, because this was a “tragedy that did not need to happen”.

He added… the re-entry efforts are focused on gathering evidence to help with the prosecution of those responsible for the death of the miners.

The goal, Little said, was to get to the pit bottom in stone where evidence – including instrumentation panels which will help determine the cause of the explosion – will likely be.

He said bringing the remains home was no longer an objective of the re-entry – he said it was “just impractical” given the complex technicalities of the mine’s geography.

But in terms of recovery of human remains, Little said he has always maintained there is a very low probability of recovery.

“I would put it as more than remote – but it is very low.”

I think that’s been obvious for a long time.

Stuff 2016: Winston Peters says Pike River re-entry is bottom line to election deals

Winston Peters says re-entering Pike River mine is a “bottom line” to any election deal made next year.

“I’m making no bones about it, we’ll give these people a fair-go, and yes this is a bottom line, and it shouldn’t have to be.”

“I didn’t want to be the first back in, I said when you have the first crew lining up to go back in, I’m offering to go,” Peters said.

Labour leader Andrew Little vowed he would do everything he could to open the site for re-entry should  Labour  be elected at the next election. Little had seen the report and spoken to experts personally, and he felt it was possible to enter the mine.

Winston Peters (Facebook) 2016:

My letter of support to the Pike River families.

We meet here today at New Zealand’s Parliament in saddened circumstances which should not be happening.

The tragedy of Pike River has been worsened by the aftermath of promises made to you that simply have not been kept.
You want to re-enter the mine tunnel, and to the extent that circumstances allow, find out as much as can be discovered and, more particularly, bring out any of your men where that is possible.

From the expert opinion which you have, and from generations of practical experience of the mining industry, you believe it is possible to re-enter.

So does New Zealand First.

You are not dissuaded by the bureaucratic, commercial and governmental roadblocks put in your way under the guise of protecting safety. Neither is New Zealand First.

As in the past we offer our complete support for the families to find out what they want to know. That is the only honest, decent, fair and correct thing to do.

As someone with some experience of working underground, in this case 11 miles underground as a “second-class miner” on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and aware of some of the dangers, where on that project they lost a man a mile, I am that confident in the expert advice that you have that I am offering to be on the first party that goes back in.

Yours sincerely
Winston Peters

The Labour-NZ First Coalition Agreement included “Commit to re-entry to Pike River.

In November 2017 Little was appointed Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry. His first announcement: Pike River Recovery Agency established

“The purpose of the agency is to gather evidence to better understand what happened in 2010, with an eye to preventing future mining tragedies and to give the Pike River families and victims’ overdue closure and peace of mind.

“The public can be confident that we are committed to transparent and impartial decision-making, based on robust advice about feasibility, safety and cost,” Mr Little said.

30 November 2017: Pike River Recovery Agency advice released

Mr Little says the Government is committed to being open and accountable, and there will be continued transparency as work progresses on the manned re-entry of the Pike River Mine drift.

“We’ve been up front with the families and public on what we are doing and that remains important in terms of trust and confidence in this process and its robustness.  That’s the sort of openness that this Government is committed to in how we work.

19 April 2018: Andrew Little enters Pike River portal

“The Pike River disaster was a national tragedy where 29 men went to work and never came home.

“Again, I’d like to acknowledge all the families who are working in partnership with me and the Coalition Government. We owe it to those families to re-enter the drift and retrieve evidence and the remains of their loved ones,” says Andrew Little.

14 November 2018: SPEECH – Andrew Little confirms Pike River Mine Drift re-entry plan to proceed

This government – and the three parties that make it up – committed to fulfilling the original promise made to the families of the 29 miners and workers: to do everything practicably possible to re-enter the drift to recover any remains, and to better understand the cause or causes of the original explosion on 19 November 2010.

Recovering remains was suggested as the first priority,. but that was absent a few months later.

12 March 2019: Pike River Mine re-entry

“We’re hopeful that work in the drift will enable the Agency and Police to thoroughly investigate what can be found there and find clues to what caused this dreadful tragedy. This is about looking for clues to what caused the explosion that killed 29 men on 19 November 2010. The recovery operation is led by the Agency and supported by Police, who will be on site managing forensic work from the start of the re-entry,” says Andrew Little.

That linked to https://www.pikeriverrecovery.govt.nz/background/faq/

What are the chances you’ll recover bodies?
The last known location of the men placed them in the mine workings beyond the roof fall, so it is unlikely that we will recover human remains.  Approximately 1600m of the drift has been examined using robots and camera footage, and about 600m is unexplored. Given it was shift change at the time of the explosion, with men going in and out, there is a possibility that human remains could be found in the drift.  As part of the detailed forensic examination, any human remains that are found will be treated and recovered with care and respect.

21 May 2019: Pike River Re-entry

More than eight years after 29 men went to work at the Pike River Coal Mine and never came home, the promise to re-enter the mine drift has been honoured.

“New Zealand is not a country where 29 people can die at work without real accountability. That is not who we are. And that is why today we have fulfilled our promise. Today we have returned,” Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry Andrew Little said.

That wasn’t their only promise, but body recovery seems to have been dropped.

But not entirely. From the Pike River Recovery website: Work programme

Recovery

Following the 21 May 2019 re-entry, and stepping through the 170m barrier on 17 December 2019, the recovery phase has now begun. This involves gathering evidence along the 2.3km drift; and, if possible, recovering any human remains

4 December 2019: Next phase of Pike River recovery underway in time for Christmas

“This Coalition Government is delivering on its promise to the Pike River families and all New Zealanders. We need to find out as much as possible about what caused 29 men to go to work and not come home. The safe recovery of the mine drift, and its forensic examination, is part of an overdue act of justice.”

Again no mention of body recovery.

17 March 2020:  Final costs for Pike River recovery released

Andrew Little also confirmed that, as has been the scope since the start of the project, the recovery effort will not be going beyond the end of the drift and into the main mine workings.

“The Coalition government remains committed to the safe and successful recovery and forensic examination of the Pike River drift. It is important to promote accountability for what happened, to inform the ongoing criminal investigation into the tragedy, and to help prevent future tragedies,” Andrew Little said.

While this mentions “successful recovery” there is no mention of bodies or remains.

But it links to a Cabinet Paper which states:

Background

7. The Agency was established in January 2018 to conduct a safe manned reentry and recovery of the Pike River Mine drift to:
7.1. Gather evidence to better understand what happened in 2010 with an eye to preventing future mining tragedies and promoting accountability for this mining tragedy;

7.2. Give the Pike River families and victims overdue closure and peace of mind; and

7.3. Recover human remains where possible.

But Little has now explicitly said there is “very low probability of recovery” of Pike River bodies.

I presume this has already been made clear to the families of the men killed in the mine.

Body recovery at Whakaari/White Island under way today

An attempt will be made to recover all eight bodies from Whakaari/White Island today. There is still seismic activity on the island but it appears to have settled a little. Geonet still say there is a significant chance of another eruption and have declared the area a red zone.

Defence Force helicopters have taken off and headed towards Whakaari this morning.

From the Police last night: Whakaari/White Island recovery operation

Statement from Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement

Tomorrow morning we have a plan, the resources and the capability to the recover the bodies on Whakaari / White Island.

The plan is contingent on a number of risk factors which will be assessed at the time. These factors include the conditions on the island and the weather.

Tomorrow morning New Zealand Defence Force assets and people with specialist capabilities from Defence, Police and other agencies will undertake the operation. Returning the bodies on the island to their loved ones remains our focus.

We have the right people with the right skills and the right equipment.

We will make every effort to recover all of the bodies however our plan is subject to things beyond our control such as the island and the weather.

A lot has to go right for us tomorrow to make this work.

There is no zero risk option in regard to the plan but we have carefully considered it. We don’t expect the risk to change tonight or tomorrow but we have planned for it.

RNZ: Police plan to recover bodies tomorrow morning

Police say the plan to recover the bodies from Whakaari / White Island tomorrow morning will take several hours, and still carries a lot of risk.

Shortly after first light tomorrow, NZ Defence Force assets with specialised equipment will go on to the island and make every effort to recover the bodies, Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said.

Police have not yet returned to the island to retrieve any bodies there as it has been deemed too dangerous.

At the same time, the risks have increased, with GNS Science late morning raising its forecast likelihood of a major eruption from 40-50 percent, to 50-60 percent in the next 24 hours.

Clement told media in Whakatāne this evening that it was still a risky operation and police had to be very cautious.

He said he expected the mission it to take several hours, “the balance of the morning” and police did not expect anything to change overnight in terms of risk.

“The risk has not gone,” he said.

He said GNS scientists would be part of the team, not going on to the island but going out on the HMNZS Wellington ship to provide analysis and support.

As well as the ship, there would be helicopters involved and specialist staff. He said the technical decisions on the ground would belong to the New Zealand Defence Force, and their plans had been designed to change depending on circumstances.

The plan is for the remains to be helicoptered onto the navy ship Wellington, which is waiting close by the island, and shipped back to Auckland.

Geonet (5:00 pm Thursday): Whakaari/White Island eruption: Update #7

Volcanic tremor remains high, however no further eruptions have occurred since Monday 9 December. There is a medium likelihood (50-60%) of future eruptive activity in the next 24 hours. The Volcanic Alert Level remains at Level 2.

Since the eruption on Monday, there has been no further eruptive activity. In the last few hours, volcanic tremor has decreased but it is still very high compared to normal levels. Vigorous steam and mud bursts continue from the active vent area.

The combined interpretation of our data is that magma is degassing at shallow depths and the situation remains highly volatile.

Another gas flight was completed today, and the data is currently being analysed to support our ongoing understanding of the volcano.

There is still a medium likelihood (50-60%) of eruptive activity in the next 24 hours. We have updated the eruption probability table.

Volcanic tremor at Whakaari/White Island since 12 November 2019:

So it is at it’s most active in the last 12 months and is significantly more active than leading up to Monday’s eruption.

From a thread by @NandorTanczos on the delay in recovering the bodies on Whakaari from Phil Van Dusschoten, Diveworks Charters, Whakatāne, 12/12/19:

This morning I attended a meeting with Commercial boat operators, other town reps and the Police.

Several high ranking officers from Auckland, A member of the Disaster Victim Identification squad and a member of the Deodar Police launch crew. Discussion revolved around the seemingly unnecessary delay in recovering the deceased.

The best information came from the DVI member.

Key points

  1. The Island is still in a potentially sudden explosive state. A White Island Tours skipper said that this eruption was like a bomb going off with shrapnel going off and only about 3 seconds from seeing the first unusual puff of steam to encountering the full blast.
  2. A thick layer of ash has changed the landscape, covered the tracks etc. and it is this layer of ash that contains the toxic and noxious gases that is releasing more so when disturbed. This is the problem gas and not that being visibly emitted from the crater and surrounds.
  3. He further advised that attempts to mitigate the gas using masks and standard breathing apparatus equipment were unsuccessful and highly limited. We were told that specialist suits and re-breather equipment was on it way as we spoke.
  4. Victim identification. The want for rapid identification allowing sooner release of bodies is paramount therefore scene examination rather than just grabbing the bodies was desirable. Bits of clothing and other means of identification on or near bodies being one of the means.

Secondary was the preservation of fingerprints with those easily being lost in this type of disaster. Other means of identification, teeth and DNA would take much longer. That is why after so many days a proper recovery is desired.

I made the following comments:

  1. The lack of information coming to the public was unfair leading to mis- information and speculation. That the information just given to us by the head of DVI should be release asap to give the public a little more understanding. They agreed.
  2. Have you actually located by drone or other method the location of each body?
    Answer: we have located 6 in situ. and we have seen one in the water which we could not recover due to sea conditions. Police and Navy divers are on their way. So one, possibly more unaccounted for.
  3. Once recovered can you assure us that the bodies will be returned via Whakatane and not just whisked off by helicopter or other to another destination . I feel the town needs this first for some sort of closure.
    Answer: If possible we will return the bodies to Whakatane
  4. When all the bodies on the Island are recovered how much longer will the 5 mile exclusion zone stay in place.
    Answer: From the Harbourmaster.. Unknown.

I don’t  see why the bodies should go to Whakatane first. What for? The priority should be on victim identification and autopsies, and Whakatane isn’t likely to be set up for that. If recovered bodies are taken to the Wellington (navy ship) then logistically it would probably be difficult to take them to Whakatane.

POLICE UPDATE – Whakaari / White Island body recovery

Statement attributable to Deputy Commissioner John Tims, National Operations Commander

This morning a blessing was held at sea with representatives of the families of the victims of the Whakaari / White Island volcanic eruption.

The family representatives are returning to the mainland and the operation to recover the eight bodies on the island has commenced.

The weather is overcast (so shore photos of Whakaari don’t show the level of emissions) and calm.

It is a Defence Force operation with Defence Force staff only going on to the island.


It has been reported that the recovery is well under way.

From RNZ Live:

Mark Inman, the brother of tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman spoke with media earlier this morning.

He said the families are just appreciative that something is really happening now.

“It’s a credit to those three key people for me – who were Mike, Anaru and William – who came down to a personal level and listened to the families and listened to their wants and needs and saw it from a human side of things.

“It’s a credit to Ngāti Awa as well for giving us the time and opportunities to take the families out to the island and have some closure. As a cultural thing, that’s amazing. As a nation we’re blessed. The Australians on the boat with us, they felt it.

They were inclusive, it was just incredible, proud to be a Kiwi. Obviously there was a lot of emotion. It was a really spiritual, fulfilling morning. It was one of those moments that you’re proud to be a New Zealander, proud to be amongst the Māori culture, and credit to Ngāti Awa for providing that opportunity to the families”

When talking of the families being welcomed back to shore he said, “It’s the New Zeland way and it’s just magic, truly special.”

National u-turns

National seem to working through a few u-turns as election year progresses.

Bringing soldiers’ remains back to New Zealand was announced on Monday:  Military personnel remains to be brought home

The families of New Zealand military personnel, and their dependants, buried overseas between 1955 and 1971 in Singapore and Malaysia will be offered the opportunity to repatriate their loved ones.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister David Bennett says this decision comes as a result of recommendations by the Veterans’ Advisory Board and the advocacy of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association and families affected, and has thanked them for their important contributions.

“Following the efforts by families to have their loved ones brought home, the Government last year asked the Veterans’ Advisory Board to look into New Zealand’s repatriation policy. The Board identified a number of inconsistencies, and the Government has listened.

“New Zealand had an inconsistent policy of repatriation between 1955 and 1971. Families could opt to meet repatriation costs themselves, but not all could afford to do so. Other civil servants were also repatriated. We want to restore fairness for those families affected.”

Mr Bennett says the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) will also look at extending the offer to the families of New Zealanders interred as a result of a military burial between 1955 and 1971 in American Samoa, Australia, Fiji, Korea, and the United Kingdom, and all countries involved have been contacted.

The NZDF will oversee the repatriation process, including consultation with the families, and the planning and subsequent return of any bodies.

“The decision on whether or not to bring the bodies home will be the families’ to make,” Mr Bennett says.

“If they choose not to repatriate, the graves will continue to be cared for under current agreements. We will support the families through this process.”

And today Government u-turn on country of origin labelling

The National Party will support a Green MPs bill requiring country of origin labelling on single ingredient food such as fruit and meat in a u-turn Prime Minister Bill English said was due to consumer preferences.

Steffan Browning’s Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill will have its first reading in Parliament soon and is set to go to select committee after National agreed to support it.

It will require mandatory country of origin labelling for fresh single ingredient foods such as meat, fruit, vegetables and nuts as well as oils and flour.

That was a shift from National’s original decision to oppose it. English said there had been “quite a bit of discussion” in National’s caucus about it.

“It’s just reflecting pretty strong consumer preferences.”

And it probably reflects the desire of national to get back into Government.

English said National would decide after the select committee process whether to continue to support it into law. About 80 per cent of single ingredient foods were already labelled with the country of origin. “It is about whether it is feasible or desirable to require the rest of them to label.”

He said the initial decision to oppose it was because National was always sceptical about new regulation, especially if it felt most people’s needs were being met by the current regulation. There was also some concern about whether it would impact on trade agreements.

Browning said it was “fantastic news” for consumers if it went ahead and could help boost sales of New Zealand produce and meat.

I think that we should be accurately informed about country of origin of foods available for purchase.