New Zealand crews to re-enter mine 8 years after 29 killed

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FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2010 photo, flames burn from a ventilation shaft above the Pike River mine which fatally trapped 29 miners, in Greymouth, New Zealand.

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2010 photo, flames burn from a ventilation shaft above the Pike River mine which fatally trapped 29 miners, in Greymouth, New Zealand. (Photo: AP)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Eight years after a methane explosion in an underground coal mine killed 29 workers, New Zealand's government says crews will re-enter the mine to better understand what went wrong and hopefully recover some of the bodies.

The announcement Wednesday by Justice Minister Andrew Little was greeted with jubilation by family members of workers killed at the Pike River mine, who for years have lobbied for the move.

Two workers escaped the mine after the deadly November 2010 explosion. After several more explosions, the mine was sealed shut.

New Zealand's previous conservative government concluded the mine remained too unsafe to re-enter. But after winning power a year ago, liberal Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised her government would re-examine the issue.

"To the Pike River families, to New Zealand: We are returning," said Little.

Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton Osborne was killed in the explosion, said it was a victory for the "little people" of New Zealand. She said that for the men who were killed, the families couldn't just let things lie.

"We needed to fight," she told media on Wednesday. "We need to bring our men home if we can. We need answers to questions that we don't have. We need the unexplored crime scene investigated. And that's what's going to happen."

Dinghy Pattinson, the chief operating officer for the Pike River Recovery Agency, told The Associated Press that the mine remains filled with about 96 percent methane gas.

A miner lays down flowers at White Knight Bridge near the entrance to the Pike River mine where 29 miners died, in Greymouth, New Zealand. Photo/AP
A miner lays down flowers at White Knight Bridge near the entrance to the Pike River mine where 29 miners died, in Greymouth, New Zealand. Photo/AP
Pike River Re-entry Minister Andrew Little, left, stands with Pike River family members Anna Osborne, second from left, Sonya Rockhouse, second from right, and Bernie Monk, right. Photo/AP
Pike River Re-entry Minister Andrew Little, left, stands with Pike River family members Anna Osborne, second from left, Sonya Rockhouse, second from right, and Bernie Monk, right. Photo/AP

He said the plan is to add some bore holes and gradually pump in nitrogen gas to replace the methane as it rises and dissipates into the atmosphere. The nitrogen will then be replaced by air before crews can safely re-enter the mine by about February, he said.

But the plan won't allow access into the inner workings of the mine, which remain blocked by a massive rockfall.

New Zealand Police say they'll be examining any new evidence from the mine, which they could use to file charges.

An earlier investigation concluded the 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, didn't contest labor violation charges against it.

Former chief executive Peter Whittall also faced labor charges but they were dismissed after he and the company made a financial settlement, a development which angered many of the grieving families. New Zealand's Supreme Court later ruled the settlement was unlawful.

Any new evidence revealed by re-entering the mine could be used in a new case against him.

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