Year later, New Zealand mine still holds 29 bodies

AP News
Posted: Nov 18, 2011 11:00 PM
Year later, New Zealand mine still holds 29 bodies

As New Zealanders mark the anniversary of a coal mine explosion that killed 29 men, the victims are right where they were one year ago Saturday: entombed in a methane-filled chamber that officials say is still too dangerous to enter.

Some families say they are unable to finish grieving because the men's bodies have not been recovered from the Pike River mine near Greymouth, and they are frustrated that more has not been done to try to reach them.

Bernie Monk, whose 23-year-old son Michael died in the 2010 disaster, said Saturday that each family is dealing with their emotions in a different way.

"Some have moved on to different places. Some are recovering, and some are, tragically, still caught up in it," Monk said in a telephone interview. "Some have not even held memorial services as they are continuing to wait until they can get their loved ones out of the mine."

At least 2,500 people, including New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, attended a public memorial service Saturday in Greymouth's Rugby Park, culminating in a minute's silence at 3:44 p.m., the time the methane-fueled explosion occurred one year earlier. The victims included 24 New Zealanders, two Scots, two Australians and one South African.

After attending a private memorial service, Monk said about 180 family members laid wreaths at the entrance to the mine and that one family also unveiled a memorial in Greymouth. It features 29 stones from the Pike River, one for each man who died.

Authorities say there is still too much explosive gas in the mine for crews to enter and recover the bodies.

But Monk said he and the other families believe the New Zealand government and Pike River bankruptcy lawyers seem more focused on selling the mine than on recovering the bodies.

One person who wasn't attending Saturday's public service is Peter Whittall, the former chief executive of Pike River Coal. He was charged last week with 12 criminal counts in the explosion. He's accused of knowing about or participating in the failures of the company he ran, and for failing to ensure that his employees came to no harm.

Whittall says he's innocent and is being made a scapegoat. He issued a statement through his lawyers saying that he didn't want to attract attention by attending the memorial, and that would be marking the occasion privately.

The government continues to investigate the disaster. Experts have testified that the mine didn't have adequate escape routes or ventilation. Pike River Coal has also been accused of cutting corners due to financial pressure.