Cheers erupted at the entrance to the Pike River Mine drift today as the door to the mine's entrance tunnel was pushed open for the first time in years and experts from the Pike River Recovery Agency went inside.
The re-entry came more than eight years after 29 men went to work at the coal mine and never came home after a deadly explosion underground.
Families of some of the victims watched from outside as experts from the Pike River Recovery Agency completed breaching the 30 metre seal and successfully re-entered the mine drift.
Previously scheduled for May 3, the milestone had been delayed following a false oxygen reading from a failed sampling tube.
The 2.3 kilometre drift tunnel has been sealed 30 metres from the portal entrance since November 2016, with double airlock doors behind a wall of about 800 millimeters of concrete.
Video from the scene shows a small group of men involved in opening the door and the sound of cheers as the door is opened. The men stepped into the drift for a short time before coming back out through the door.
Images from outside show smiling family members hugging workers in yellow high viz jackets, and the onlookers standing in a circle holding yellow balloons.
Pike River Family Reference Group member Anna Osborne lost her husband to the mine explosion in 2010 and says the opening of the drift was an intense moment.
“Watching those doors open and seeing the light enter that dark tunnel for the first time in years was incredibly emotional. We’ve known we are going back in for a year now, today it feels like it," she said.
“This is the start of a journey that will end with truth and justice.”
Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry Andrew Little says New Zealand is not a country where 29 people can die at work without real accountability.
"That is not who we are. And that is why today we have fulfilled our promise. Today we have returned,” he said.
“The tragedy that took these men’s lives was the consequence of corporate and regulatory failure.
“Fulfilling the promise to do everything possible to safely re-enter is an act of justice for families who have waited for far too long."
It was agency chief operating officer and site senior executive Dinghy Pattinson who led mine deputy Kirk Neilson and geotechnical engineer Chris Lee through the doors to have a brief look inside.
After the initial re-entry, re-entry and recovery will be carried out by three agency teams.