Police have found more human remains inside Pike River Mine - with 12 of the 29 men who died in the 2010 disaster now having been located.
Police and mining experts have been drilling holes deep into the underground coal mine on the West Coast of the South Island, searching for more clues in the ongoing criminal probe into the disaster.
The remains of two, possibly three, miners were located in the “crib room area” during the final stages of the second borehole drilling programme, police confirmed today.
All 10 boreholes have now been drilled, imaged and resealed.
Detective Superintendent Darryl Sweeney, the current officer in charge of the police investigation, said, however, that police are not able to say who the men might be.
“Previously, police have been able to narrow down the possibilities based on information about where the miners were working prior to the first explosion,” he said today.
“Unfortunately, in this case, we’re not able to do that.”
More human remains have been found inside the Pike River Mine, nearly 13 years since explosions killed 29 men, police have said. Photo / George Heard
The families of all 29 miners were notified of the discovery on Wednesday.
‘The remains that have been seen are the fellas I worked with’ - father
Rowdy Durbridge who worked at Pike River and lost his boy Dan in the explosion said the recovery of images from inside the mine has been haunting and informing.
“The remains that have been seen are the fellas I worked with, they may even be my boy,” he said.
“Everyone knows 29 men died in that shithole of a mine but to know they have been seen is somehow different.
“I can take some heart in the fact that what’s been seen confirms they fell where they stood and didn’t spend days trapped in there alive like some people have tried to claim.”
Two missing drift runners — vehicles used to transport miners and materials underground — were also found in the same area, Sweeney said.
“We recognise this process is extremely difficult for the families and we are committed to keeping them up to date on our investigation into the first explosion at the mine in November 2010,” he said.
“The completion of the borehole programme means we are now focusing on other aspects of the investigation.
“This includes working through witness statements and re-interviewing some of those involved.”
Today, the Pike River Family Reference Group said the end of evidence gathering at the mine signals a new chapter in the fight for truth and justice.
Anna Osborne who lost her husband Milton in the disaster believes the re-entry of Pike River and the subsequent investigation has returned some honour to New Zealand.
“The effort that this government and now the police have put into getting back into Pike and then investigating the trove of evidence that has produced has gone a long way to putting right some of the injustices and lies Pike families have faced since that awful day in 2010,” she said.
“Justice is being done and I am confident it will end in accountability for those responsible.”
Pike River Mine family members Anna Osborne, left, and Sonya Rockhouse are among those still pushing for a criminal prosecution. Photo / NZME
Sonya Rockhouse’s son Ben died in the explosion and her son Daniel was one of two men who managed to escape after the explosion.
She said that New Zealanders should be pleased that justice is being done.
“There’s a lot of frankly upsetting and harmful conspiracy theories that get spread about Pike River but we family members have been at the heart of the recovery and have been keeping a close eye on the investigation,” Rockhouse said.
“I can tell you first-hand that justice is getting done.”
All equipment was removed from the remote West Coast site last week and a blessing was held on Monday.
Sweeney expressed his thanks to all those who worked on the borehole programme.
“This was an extremely unique and complex task that required everyone involved to constantly adapt and innovate,” he said.
“Much of the equipment was custom-built or modified to overcome the challenges of working in a dark, volatile environment that’s otherwise inaccessible.
“The quality of the images obtained is world-class and a testament to the hard work of many police staff and external experts. I’m grateful for their knowledge, skills, and experience.”
A total of 18 boreholes have been drilled and 20 imaged during the police investigation – eight drilled and 10 imaged during the first drilling programme in 2021/2022 and 10 drilled and imaged this year.
On Friday, November 19, 2010, at about 3.44pm, an explosion ripped through the Pike River underground coal mine, followed by subsequent explosions. Two men made it out alive but another 29 were unaccounted for.
Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy found that the “immediate cause of the first explosion was the ignition of a substantial volume of methane gas”, but could only speculate on what might have triggered ignition.
“The mine was new and the owner, Pike River Coal Ltd (Pike), had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal. Its health and safety systems were inadequate,” the commission’s report said.
WorkSafe laid charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall in 2013, but the case was dropped after a $3.4 million settlement was paid – a deal the Supreme Court later said was unlawful.
The money was split between the two survivors and the families of the 29 missing, a total of $110,000 for each man who had been down the mine that day.
Australian company VLI Drilling, which employed three of the men who died, also pleaded guilty to health and safety charges and was fined $46,800.
The Pike River Recovery Agency (PRRA) completed its $50m re-entry of the mine’s access tunnel to try to recover remains and find any forensic clues in 2021.
It had been due to permanently seal the mine while police were partway through their borehole investigations.
But some Pike River families who lost loved ones, and had fought for years to try and get authorities to try and find their bodies, launched legal action to try and stop it from happening.
Some of the families remain hopeful that a criminal prosecution is still possible.
* Kurt Bayer is a South Island correspondent based in Christchurch. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2011.
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