One of the country’s most experienced miners tells David Williams how the Pike River re-entry will proceed.

His high-vis vest hung up in favour of a black floral shirt, Dinghy Pattinson is unflappable and measured.

He started yesterday confident his team would re-enter the Pike River coal mine – the site of a 2010 disaster that killed 29 men – but prepared to pull the plug if things didn’t go to plan. About midday, after 10 minutes of monitoring oxygen levels, Pattinson led mine deputy Kirk Neilson and geotechnical engineer Chris Lee through double airlock doors, once encased in concrete, and into the mine access tunnel, known as the drift.

Family members of the victims clapped and shed tears. Anna Osborne, the widow of Milton, called it “a brilliant day that I’ll never forget”. Bernie Monk, who lost his son Michael, said the re-entry was long overdue. “It wasn’t till I actually saw the concrete come out of the mine that I realised that this is the day … this re-entry is really going to start.”

Pattinson says he wasn’t nervous when the trio were opening the doors, and “nothing unusual” was going through his head. “It was a privilege to be involved in it.” (The infrastructure they could see – galvanised steel walkways and “shotcrete”, an extra layer of concrete sprayed over mesh and bolts to support the walls and roof – seemed to be in good condition, he reports.)

Pattinson was born and bred in Greymouth, from five generations of miners – starting himself at age 16. He talks to Newsroom in the Pike River Recovery Agency office in central Greymouth, wedged between a Kiwibank and a shop called Just Incredible.

You’d expect there to be a beer on the desk of the agency’s chief operating officer, given what the it has just achieved. Instead there’s a pink milk. He’s got a job to finish.

Yesterday was a day for the families, Pattinson says. “It’s probably a day for all of New Zealand because it’s all about truth and justice. And today’s the start of that.”

Dinghy Pattinson is a man on a mission. Photo: David Williams

From their vantage point yesterday, about 50 metres into the drift, the trio’s torches illuminated a wall at the 170-metre mark – installed in 2011 by a mines rescue team, led by Pattinson. (A note on the wall said they would return – “We will not rest and we will never give up”. Pattinson says: “We honestly thought we would be back, but no one thought it would take eight years.”)

Ventilation from outside the mine will be extended up to that wall, probably by the end of this week, and the airlock doors will be closed. Then, next week, the 170-metre wall will be “rated”, or re-established as a barrier. There’s a design from an Australian ventilation engineer to bring it up to standard.

“We’ve got to actually keep injecting nitrogen behind it,” Pattinson says. “So it’s got to withstand that pressure that’s going to build up.”

Once the wall’s up to spec, the environment behind it will be monitored for a week or so. All going well, the doors, 30m from the mine entrance, will be removed.

“Then we can get our mining machinery in there and remove all of the infrastructure. We’ve got to remove the concrete weirs out, remove all that and other infrastructure.

“I’m picking that to get us to that stage, of everything up to the 170-m wall, that could be about six or eight weeks.”

Emotional scenes for families, including Anna Osborne, at the Pike River mine yesterday. Photo: Pike River Recovery Agency

In parallel, the agency has to plan what’s going to happen beyond the wall, up to a known rockfall at the drift’s 2.3-kilometre mark. To that end, some experts involved in previous workshops are coming back to the country in early June and the end of July.

The tunnel will be recovered in stages, by three teams. The first will assess possible hazards and make the mine safe, while casting around for evidence. The second team is “forensically focused”, examining and removing material. Mining services, including gas monitoring, communication lines and ventilation bags, will be advanced by a third team.

The agency has advertised for three or four people, Pattinson says, mainly because of the police taking an “agile” approach to evidence-collecting, preferring to wait until the whole access tunnel is cleared, and made safe, before going in.

Under the $36 million operation’s initial timeline, the 30m doors were meant to be breached in February. Has this delay, and the recent setback of an unexpected oxygen reading, changed the overall timeline and budget?

“We’re still on track,” Pattinson says. “I’d still be saying we’ll be finished by the end of year – end of December – at this stage.”

That may change, he says. A lot will depend on when mine workers get beyond the 170m wall. “I reckon it’s probably about five months to do the whole job.”

Once the agency’s work is done, and the site remediated, the mine will be handed to the Department of Conservation, as the mine sits in the Paparoa National Park.

“If I can do this whole job and we don’t hurt anybody, that’s bloody successful.” – Dinghy Pattinson

Osborne, who chairs the Pike River families reference group, told Newsroom yesterday her most basic ambitions are for things to go to plan for the agency, and for nobody to be hurt.

Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry Andrew Little said in a statement there is much to do and it will be done safely: “New Zealand is not a country where 29 people can die at work without real accountability. That is not who we are.”

What are Pattinson’s yardsticks of success?

The agency’s mandate is to reach the rockfall, so one measure of success is to reach there and “do what we said we’d do”, he says. He’d also like for the families to have closure, including finding what caused the explosion. “If we find human remains, that’s success.”

Health and safety is paramount. Pattinson says there have been about 2500 helicopter flights since the agency was formed, and between 14 and 15 km of pipe have been laid over unforgiving, mountainous country. All without injury.

In the access tunnel, there’s the delicate balance of pumping nitrogen into the mine, under pressure, and managing to slowly reintroduce oxygen without mixing it with potentially lethal methane gas, allowing workers to steadily move up the mine. (The last 300m stretch might have to be done with breathing apparatus.)

Pattinson: “If I can do this whole job and we don’t hurt anybody, that’s bloody successful.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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