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.

Not all Pike river families approve of re-entry

‘Pike River families’ has often been put forward as one unified group wanting re-entry to the mine and recovery of the bodies, but at least one family opposes the re-entry plan, calling it disgraceful.

Recent news reports refer to the families collectively:

Andrew Little on Pike River: ‘Re-entry is about fulfilling a promise to the families’

“Re-entry of the Pike River Mine will proceed. To the Pike River families, to New Zealand, we are returning.”

Pike River relatives on mine re-entry: It’s a ‘truly amazing day for our families’

Friends and family of the 29 men killed in the Pike River Mine disaster say an agreed plan to re-enter the mine is a historic moment of truth and justice.

Sonya Rockhouse, who lost her son Ben in the disaster, told Morning Report the change of government had made a huge difference to the families’ campaign and the previous National government had failed them, she said.

Bernie Monk, who also lost a loved one, said it was a proud day for all Kiwis.

Anna Osborne said it was a historic moment for truth and justice and that the announcement was a “truly amazing day for our families”.

“We fought really hard for our men for a really long time and today, this is a victory for our families,” she said.

“This is a victory for the little people of New Zealand.

Pike River Recovery Agency (Government website): Family Reference Group

The Pike River Recovery Agency works in partnership with the Family Reference Group, who represent the overwhelming majority of the Pike River families.  Here they introduce who they are:

‘Stand With Pike’, the families of more than 80% of Pike victims, have fought hard for answers as to why this happened or, more to the point, why no-one intervened to stop it.

24 of 29 is 82%, so that means up to five of the families are not represented.

And one of those five has spoken up – Mother of Pike River victim: Re-entry plan ‘disgraceful’ (RNZ):

Christchurch mother Marion Curtin says she was left sitting by her phone feeling raw after the announcement of the Pike River Mine re-entry yesterday.

Her son, Richard Holling, never came home after the November 2010 tragedy, but she wanted it to stay that way.

Some people might assume that all 29 affected families considered yesterday’s news as a “victory,” she said, but she was one of the silent many who disagreed.

She said the plan was an “appalling” waste of $36 million.

“I’m just so disappointed. I couldn’t believe that cabinet would sign this off,” she said.

Especially given the lack of certainty, she said, with nobody able to tell her exactly what the mine recovery experts would be looking for.

“I see it as sacrilege, really. To go in fossicking around for remains… to go in just to see what they find – I think it’s just disgraceful,” she said.

Ms Curtin loathed the fact it had become so political. She said the months leading up to last year’s election were especially challenging.

“Some people liked that… the politicians climbing on board. I certainly didn’t. That was my son’s death they were playing with.” she said.

While yesterday’s news had been extolled as a “huge victory” and a relief for the people in Greymouth, Ms Curtin did not feel this way and refuted the idea that she was in the minority.

Different people have different ways of dealing with grief. I’m not sure that that is well enough recognised by the recovery agency and the politicians promoting re-entry.

Following the loss of her son, Ms Curtin said said she had just been trying to get on with her own life.

“I remember Richard with love every day. But for me a good day is when I don’t hear Pike River mentioned. I don’t dwell on Pike River.”

Repeatedly bringing the tragedy up in the news can be hard for some people.

And if the re-entry ever gets to the stage of finding bodies, can they respect the wishes of some families, any families, who don’t want ‘fossicking around for remains’?