Pike River and body recovery

The original blast on the afternoon of November 19 at Pike River lasted 50 seconds, as recorded on the mine's closed circuit television.

That is a long time for an incident of this kind and indicates the scale of the underground disaster and its immediate effects on the 29 who were trapped. It also indicates the nature of the dangers faced by would-be rescuers in a situation where they would truly be entering the unknown. The subsequent fires and explosions, and the presence of deadly gases, has in the months since, despite valiant and expensive efforts, prevented any ability to enter the mine and recover the victims. That has been an agonising wait for the grieving families and might never be resolved.

It has been and is complicated by events that could not have been foreseen, particularly the receivership of the company operating the mine and the complications that followed. The Government, in effect without specific responsibility because the disaster involved a private company, has nevertheless adopted a humanitarian approach, as was to be expected, even while being criticised for not doing more.

So, too, the police, with principal legal responsibility for taking charge at the scene of the accident and thereafter during the attempts to recover the bodies. The police faced criticism for not doing more, and even the mine rescue service had its expertise challenged when declining to enter a mine it maintained was still unsafe.

A meeting last weekend in Christchurch, where representatives of the parties involved and the victims' families attempted to reach common ground, appears to have been fruitful, although it must be recognised that the chances of body recovery remain remote. According to the Prime Minister, there is still "no credible plan" to recover the bodies, by which we assume he means no plan that would not be an unwarranted risk to those who would have to enter the mine. An attempt is to be made to seal the mine so oxygen cannot enter and feed the possibility of fire and explosion.

Representatives of the families have proposed the eventual drilling of a cross-shaft to allow mine entry and the recovery of the bodies. A new safety assessment is to be made.

These are signs that the authorities are prepared to spend more time and money including, in the Prime Minister's case, using his official contingency fund to satisfy what appears to be an increasingly hopeless cause. The receivership further complicates matters.

There may be a prospective buyer in sight wanting to exploit the still-valuable coal resource, and that company may well be committed to making the Pike River mine safe and recovering the bodies. On the other hand, a prospective purchaser might want nothing to do with such a potentially lengthy, costly and dangerous requirement. A new owner might choose to simply seal the mine and work the deposit from some other locality.

If the accord at the weekend results in the stabilising of the mine and investigations into re-entry produce a credible plan with a high degree of safety, then few of us will want to deny proceeding.

But there is a need for patience, a considerable amount of money, and all must recognise the possibility of failure. And at some point, if recovery is not a realistic option, there will need to be acceptance that the mine is indeed a tomb.

And another thing

The plan by Wellington airport's owners to place a large sign saying "Wellywood" on a Miramar hill beside the airport has certainly sparked dudgeon among the citizens of the self-proclaimed arts capital. Clearly, few of them actually fly into the airport.

Those who do on a regular basis will better understand the rationale in providing a useful distraction for terrified passengers to look at as their aircraft pitches and tosses its way on to the tarmac.

Some claim the sign is to remind visitors that the seat of New Zealand government is actually a clone of Hollywood, but surely they cannot be serious?

Our own Mosgiel, of course, makes no such claims. Its sign has proudly proclaimed, since 1987, no more than the name of the location: Mosgiel.

In Wellington's case, we suggest residents consider the following: "Oh wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us!"

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