Families bid farewell at New Zealand mine

About 500 friends and family of the 29 men killed in a New Zealand mine explosion were on Saturday taken to “say goodbye” at the remote colliery where they lie entombed.

Many carried flowers and photos of their loved ones as they were taken in a fleet of white buses to the Pike River mine, eight days after the disaster.

The visit, organised by the mining company, would help grieving families deal with the loss, said Laurie Drew, whose 21-year-old son Zen was killed.

“I went up there the other day and now my boys are going up, which is really good because it allows them to feel closer to their brother,” Drew said.

“We just want closure … then everyone can move on.”

Zen’s mother said she found the visit “very healing” and it helped her to say goodbye.

“I felt close to my boy. I felt like I was able to say goodbye to him — just directly from me,” Leeza Verhoeven told NZPA.

“It just felt like we were able to relax with the spirits of the loved ones.”

The families were kept away from the mine portal but were able to see the wall where the miners’ name tags remain, according to industry tradition, to show they have started their shift and are still underground.

The group returned to the town of Greymouth, 50km away, in the late afternoon and attended a special church service in the evening.

The 29 men — who included two Australians, two Britons and a South African — were trapped 2,5km inside the mine by a gas explosion on November 19.

Vow over bodies
As anxious rescuers waited for gas levels to drop so they could mount a search operation, a second and more powerful explosion last Wednesday ended any hope of finding survivors.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall said it could be weeks before the bodies are recovered as volatile gas levels remain dangerously high in the mine and a third blast rocked the site on Friday.

But Whittall said the firm remains determined to return the bodies to their families.

Tony Kokshoorn, mayor of the tight-knit Grey District on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, said a permanent monument was planned to remember the tragedy, which left at least 13 children fatherless and was the country’s worst mining disaster in almost a century.

“It’s important that we have memorials of the loved ones and the children in the future can have something tangible to say: ‘My father, he was part of that. It wasn’t in vain and he was part of the west coast family’,” he said.

“The west coast family is about coal running through the veins and a history of coal mining. And we have to accept a history of disasters that go with coal.”

Messages of sympathy have poured in from around the world and the All Blacks were to wear white armbands on their black jerseys in their rugby Test against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Captain Richie McCaw said the players wanted to express their “sympathies and feelings”.

“It’s going to affect a hell of a lot of people right through the country, being a small country.

“The least we can do is to get out and have a good performance to at least try to put a bit of a smile on some people’s faces, but it’s still pretty tough I’m sure.”

A minute’s silence is due to be observed before kick-off and Wales assistant coach Rob Howley said: “With Wales being a mining country, I’m sure come the minute’s silence on Saturday there will be many thoughts from the Welsh people going across to New Zealand.”

New Zealand is to hold a national memorial service next Thursday at a racecourse overlooking the Paparoa Range where the mine is located.

“We want it there because we can include our miners in it,” Kokshoorn said. – AFP

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