1544hrs November 19th 2010

It’s taken me some time to get around to completing this post for a number of reasons- it’s too awful, it’s too painful, it’s got too many hooks, it’s too raw, and so on. I did make a start a few days after the event…

A delightful warm, sunny West Coast day and 3 miner mates of mine and myself are enjoying a leisurely evening round of golf. In the distance we hear the sound of sirens (police or ambulance, we can’t tell which as they are similar) on the other side of the river. A minute or so later 2 more vehicles with sirens and one of the guys jokes, “The mine’s blown up” because we thought the sirens were heading to their mine at Spring Creek at Runanga. Minutes later one of the guys cell phone rings and he receives notification that there has been an explosion underground at the Pike River coal mine, some 40kms north of Greymouth. As he is on the mines backup rescue team he leaves and rushes off to his car. The two remaining guys are shocked and suddenly all thoughts of jokes are gone. We sort of continued to play but receive repeated cell-phone calls and texts giving more and more of the terrible news that the explosion was large, that two miners had walked out having survived the potentially deadly blast by being late to their shift and belatedly making their way down the 2.5km entrance tunnel towards the coal workings hundreds of feet underground in the magnificently rugged and beautiful Paparoa Ranges. The mood became more and more somber and we finished little interested in scores but desperate to get further news about the potential disaster that has befallen their mates, because the mining fraternity is just that- a brotherhood, and all share the same knowledge of the hazards of the job of underground coal mining. Discussion between my mates doesn’t make good listening as they paint dire pictures of likely consequences of a major explosion, although they have both been underground when gas incidents have happened. Word comes in of the apparent destruction of the ventilation shaft, confirmation of the severity of the blast, and the names of some of the some 20-30 guys who are probably trapped underground.

That’s as far as I got because as more and more news came out it became evident that 29 miners were underground and unaccounted for, but according to my mates were probably already dead. Their description of what had probably taken place deep in the mountain made one physically ill, caused cold sweats, led to thoughts of what the families were now feeling, and generated concerns as to whether or not personal friends were in the shift or on contract teams working in the mine at the time of the explosion.

PIKE RIVER. It is an idyllic wee stream that flows eastwards out of the Paparoa Ranges which has given its name to the company that started digging into the rich seams of high grade coking coal a couple of years ago. Pike River Coal had been producing small quantities after many delays with actually reaching the seam.

Gas, most notably methane, the most dangerous explosive gas to the layman has been an issue underground in all underground coal mines, is a natural hazard produced in varying but always significant amounts when extracting coal. Because of this safety checks are always of paramount importance and this possibly moreso in modern times because of the more extensive workings and the greater depths at which miners work. This being said in the hours and days after the explosion stories/rumours were rife about short-cuts apparently taken at Pike. People “knew people” who had told them… However the whole community was holding on to hopes of a rescue, until…

Word came out that on the fifth day there was a second explosion, apparently more massive than the first, and it was at this time that all hope was lost. The 29 would never see the light of day.

All of those involved have wondered at the amazing support that they have received from around the local community, The Coast, New Zealand and over seas. The messages and gifts flooded in but of course no amount of sympathy or support is going to make the loss of a loved any less brutal. Of course it will be of comfort to those who have lost a father, brother, husband, partner. And it is humbling for the Greymouth community who have suddenly been thrust into the public view.

So I have finally posted this rambling 1 month to the hour after the event, and it isn’t all that much easier. Rest well, the Pike River 29. Be strong the families of the 29. And good luck to those who are now toiling to recover the remains of their lost mates.

Of course the blame game, the need to support those who have now lost their jobs, the investigation into what happened and how, the effect of the disaster and the mine’s future on The Coast economy, all of the ugly aftermath is now to come. Watch this space?

Post Script: The coroner’s inquest found that all of the miners would have either died at the time of the first explosion, or within hours rather than days of that explosion. This would perhaps have been different in an older and therefore larger mine where the people underground would have the possibility of being in work areas significantly removed from the blast site. Now the families are asking why the police persisted in presenting a ‘search and rescue’ message when it is felt they must have received advice that pointed to a situation described by the coroner months later.


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