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11 July 2011

Pike River disaster Royal Commission opens

The commission will attempt to establish what happened at the mine where 29 men died. (AAP: Iain McGregor)

The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster in New Zealand has opened at the Greymouth District Court.

The commission will attempt to establish what happened at the mine where 29 men died in a series of explosions last November.

Counsel assisting the commission, James Wilding, posed the question as to why it so often takes a tragedy to prompt an examination of whether things are being done right.

He said in 160 years of coal mining in New Zealand there had been many deaths and nine commissions or royal commissions of inquiry.

He said since changes to legislation in the 1970s and 1990s deaths had occurred with alarming frequency.

He said evidence tendered to the Royal Commission questioned the abolition of a specialist mines inspection unit in the 1990s, and changes which made the industry more self-regulating.

Mr Wilding also said concerns had been raised about the search and rescue operation.

The commission will conduct hearings in four phases. The first phase will run two weeks.

Mr Wilding told the commissioners their inquiry would cover a wide range of matters with many keenly awaiting their findings.

"Commissioners, you have been charged with finding out what happened at Pike River, why and what can be done to stop it happening again," he said.

"The answers to those questions are wanted by many: the family, friends and workmates of the miners, the government, the mining industry, many people in New Zealand and some overseas."

The Royal Commission is the most powerful inquiry available under New Zealand law.

The disaster claimed the lives of 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African man.

Late last month a recovery team entered the main tunnel of the mine for the first time since the deadly November 19 explosions.

Mines rescue teams aim to get to a rockfall behind which it is believed the miners were working.

The miners' remains are still entombed in the mine and their families have called for them to be recovered so they can receive a proper burial.

- ABC News