Crews in New Zealand yesterday re-entered an underground coal mine where a methane explosion killed 29 workers more than eight years ago, raising hopes among family members that they might find bodies and new evidence that leads to criminal charges.
Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton was killed in the explosion, said that the families had been fighting for this ever since the Pike River mine exploded.
“We did it. We won,” Osborne said.
Photo: AFP / Pike River Family Reference Group / Handout
It had been a “hugely emotional” day for the families and it was a moving experience to watch people going back into the mine, she said.
The families hope the crews can recover electronic equipment that indicates what went wrong, much like the black box in an airplane, she added.
“The families are all hoping that the team going in, with their forensic expertise, will find new evidence for future prosecutions against those who allowed the mine to blow up in first place,” Osborne said.
Nigel Hampton, a lawyer who is acting for the families, said that if they discover what ignited the methane, it could help link acts of negligence with the deaths of the miners and result in charges such as manslaughter.
“There’s still a long way to go yet, but it’s possible,” he said.
Two workers escaped the mine after the deadly November 2010 explosion. After several more explosions, the mine was sealed shut with a concrete barrier.
New Zealand’s previous conservative government concluded that the mine remained too unsafe to re-enter. However, the liberal government elected in 2017, led by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, reconsidered.
“New Zealand is not a country where 29 people can die at work without real accountability,” New Zealand Minister of Justice Andrew Little said.
“That is not who we are, and that is why today we have fulfilled our promise. Today we have returned,” he added.
The plan would not allow access into the inner workings of the mine, which are blocked by a massive rockfall.
It was unclear how many miners were on either side of the rockfall at the time of the explosion or how many bodies might be recovered.
New Zealand police said that they would examine any new evidence from the mine, which they could use to file charges.
An earlier investigation concluded that Pike River Coal company had exposed miners to unacceptable risks as it strove to meet financial targets.
The report found the company ignored 21 warnings that methane gas had accumulated to explosive levels before the disaster.
The company, which went bankrupt, did not contest charges of labor law breaches against it.
Charges against former Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall were dismissed after he and the company agreed to a financial settlement, a development which angered many of the grieving families.
The New Zealand Supreme Court later ruled the settlement was unlawful.
Whittall moved to Australia about five years ago.
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