by Kevin Hague
I have spent a bit of time in Courthouses. They are typically depressing places, cold, hard, unwelcoming; the people angry, fearful, resigned. The Greymouth Courthouse is a new one. The waiting room is well lit. There are paintings on the walls, carpet on the floor. Yet those same feelings are almost palpable, along with a deep frustration and sense of betrayal, as well as a hunger for answers.
The families of the Pike 29 have been there from day 1 of the Royal Commission, some there all day, every day, others dipping in and out as their other commitments and personal strength allow. I remember one event from Phase 1 that I found utterly heart-wrenching. Peter Whittall was giving a very long account of the types of machine being used in the mine. I was sitting out in the waiting room with a handful of family members, getting a break from the intensity of the courtroom itself, but still able to watch the evidence on closed circuit TV. At one point Mr. Whittall brought up a slide of the coal face to illustrate the pattern of scouring on the rock left by a continuous mining machine. It was an unremarkable image. Yet two of the women in the waiting area with me suddenly became very animated and rushed to the wall where the screen hangs. “That’s where they are” one of them said to the other.
For the families, who wait through agonising months, now almost a year, for the remains of their loved ones to be brought out of the mine so they can have some sense of closure, the Royal Commission gives them the opportunity to understand how this disaster occurred and, perhaps, to hold someone accountable.
In this phase of the inquiry we are going to hear a lot more about how the families have been communicated with, but already we have heard some damning revelations. Some readers may have seen on television earlier this year some of the images taken in the so-called ‘fresh air base’ in the mine, showing an opened box that contained self-rescuers (which allow a person roughly 50 minutes of Oxygen when worn correctly). We don’t know exactly how that box was opened, but it very clearly establishes that at least one strong possibility is that one or more people survived the initial blast and were able to access the self-rescuers.
What has been revealed publicly for the first time this week is that this image did not just become available this year. In fact it was recorded on November 24th, just days after the first explosion and before the second explosion. The Mine Manager gave evidence that it was clear to him as soon as he saw the image at that time that it showed an opened self-rescue box.
You probably won’t remember, but the second explosion corresponded roughly with the time that all the authorities started assuring us that everybody died in the first explosion, but all the time they said this they KNEW that there was at least a strong possibility this was not the case, but elected not to tell the families or the public. In fact I know how this image eventually came to light publicly, and it was not through official action. If that hadn’t happened, would it ever have been released?
Two obvious explanations present themselves for covering up this evidence; one charitable, one not. The charitable explanation is that authorities believed it would be of some comfort to families to believe that their loved ones had died instantly. The uncharitable explanation is that authorities wished to divert attention from the obvious questions about whether or not it had actually been possible to mount a rescue.
There’s a political dimension to this too. You may remember that at the time of the disaster, Mr. Brownlee and Mr. Key were apparently very closely involved. It is inconceivable that they were not told about the opened self-rescuer box, which means that they were almost certainly party to covering this up, and deceiving the families and the public.
The questions for Mr. Key don’t stop there though. Mr White indicated that as far back as December he was instructed to refer to a ‘stabilisation’ operation at the mine and not to use the word ‘recovery’. Talking about recovery of the human remains was “politically unacceptable” he had been told. It would raise expectations and cost too much. He had budgeted that recovery could occur with a budget of $10 million. He had been given a budget of $5 million. When this evidence was given the talk both inside the Courtoom and then outside during the break was of the many occasions on which Mr. Key gave the families a sweeping assurance that no effort would be spared to recover the dead men. Apparently a disconnect between the public assurance and the behind closed doors instruction.
I was going to say that I think I am now the only person from the official party at the Pike River Memorial still following the Royal Commission. That wouldn’t be fair though. I can’t make it every day, and no doubt there are some people there when I’m not, and others are watching online. But the person who really doesn’t seem to be involved right now, who really needs to be is John Key. He needs to give some answers. And he needs to follow through on his promises.