Recovery team enters New Zealand death mine

A recovery team on Tuesday entered New Zealand's Pike River colliery for the first time since a series of explosions tore through the mine last November and killed 29 men, officials said.

A six-member NZ Mines Rescue team entered the underground shaft, which has been closed since an initial November 19 blast triggered the country's worst mining disaster in almost a century, Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn said.

"This is a big step forward, we've been waiting now with the families for seven months and it's been a hard, hard seven months," Kokshoorn told the New Zealand Press Association.

The miners' remains are still entombed about 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) into the colliery and their families have called for them to be recovered so they can receive a proper burial.

Until now, however, experts have warned that levels of methane gas within the mine, which set off the explosions in November, remained too high.

While the recovery team only ventured 200 metres into the colliery to carry out an initial inspection, Kokshoorn said it raised hopes that the bodies would eventually be brought to the surface.

"We are finally on the journey and this journey won't end until we recover the bodies to the families so we can have final closure," he said.

Bernie Monk, who lost his son Michael in the disaster, said victims' families understood the recovery would be a lengthy process, possibly taking up to two years as a new shaft is drilled through the rock.

"We're excited but we realise that it's a long way to go yet," he told Radio New Zealand.

A Royal Commission -- the most powerful inquiry available under New Zealand law -- will hold hearings next month into the disaster, which claimed the lives of 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African.

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