Pike River, two years on

At the Pike River memorial service held at our local racecourse on a hot, still day in the weeks following the disaster, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn, who has often had the knack of putting his finger exactly on how our local community is feeling, referred to the Paparoa Ranges towering beside us as “our cathedral”.

That metaphor, surprising as it was, has felt completely right to me. I have spent a lot of time in the Paparoas, either on foot or on my bike. It has always been a special place, but the feeling of being there has changed forever.

The next time I was walking up into those hills, the following January, struggling with overwhelming feelings of grief and anger in equal measure, I took a broken call on my mobile urging me to get back to town as quickly as I could on account of a surprise public announcement expected to be made about Pike River.

It was the announcement that re-entry of the mine was going to be very unlikely and that control of it was therefore being passed from Police to the Pike River receivers. It was a poorly managed announcement that left families and journalists alike very confused. I was initially flummoxed – how could Government withdraw with 29 bodies still not recovered underground? This quickly gave way to anger when it seemed to me that an implication of the decision was that the men would only now be recovered incidental on a commercial decision to resume mining. So it has proved.

Good on the Pike River families for doing whatever they can to push for the recovery of the remains of their loved ones. But they shouldn’t have had to. I believe most people would have expected the Government to do whatever it could to effect recovery. Their failure to do so, and their prioritisation of commercial considerations over human ones have been nothing short of shameful.

In the first week or so after the first explosion, a bunch of Government Ministers, notably Gerry Brownlee, did a great job of fronting up and sincerely representing the New Zealand public. Sadly, since that time Government has mostly struggled to understand the right things to do, or to do them. Government eventually did move to establish the High Hazards Unit and to commence a review of occupational health and safety legislation and regulations, but only after saying day after day in the House, in response to my questions, that they wouldn’t do either until the Royal Commission reported. The Minister eventually resigned, but only from the Labour portfolio and at least a year after the catastrophic failures of her department had already become clear. That same department, at precisely the time that  its extreme and multiple errors were being in detailed every day in evidence to the Royal Commission, chose not even to investigate its own role in the tragedy, let alone prosecute itself, as it was mandated to do.

The Royal Commission report has been the sole bright light in the two years since the disaster. I was a submitter to the inquiry myself, and sat in on much of the evidence. I think it’s fair to say that for all of us who listened to that evidence it was an unforgettable experience. Every day brought fresh revelations about astonishing errors of commission and omission by the Pike River Coal company itself, at every level, and by the Department of Labour. But every day also brought a small number of questions and comments from the Commissioners that indicated they too had understood this.

The Royal Commission’s report is outstanding, and all of its recommendations deserve to be implemented without delay or modification. The report is also a triumph for the evidence of Dr. Kathleen Callaghan, a witness called by the Pike River families. Dr Callaghan is an expert in, essentially, how human beings come to make mistakes. She was very clear in listing many, many factors known to cause risk of error that were issues at Pike River. She also outlined the importance of focusing not just on the immediate causes of what went wrong, but on the “causes of the causes”. The further ‘upstream’ we intervene, the wider the range of future ‘accidents’ that can be prevented. The value of Dr Callaghan’s evidence is reflected in the Royal Commission’s recommendations, which do, indeed, focus upstream.

John Key has responded by saying that the Government will implement “the vast bulk” of the recommendations. The more cynical amongst us will have thought that he means by this that the Government will implement the recommendations to the extent that it can’t get away with not doing so. Mr Key unfortunately strengthened this impression in his answers to my questions in the House about the role of deregulation, where he seemed not to have grasped this central thrust of the Royal Commission report: that deregulation had created an environment where Pike River Coal could get away with a mine that was lethally dangerous in many respects.

Acting Minister of Labour, Chris Finlayson, in contrast, did seem to understand what the Royal Commission had been saying. He acknowledged my suggestion of a cross-party group to oversee implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. Today would be a good day to establish such a group.

11 thoughts on “Pike River, two years on

  1. I deeply resent that the Paparoas have become a place of grief and despair.

    I am starting to understand (and want to better understand) the Maori concept of being attached to the land and the spiritual requirement for healing and an understanding of its past and its future.

    The West Coast is one of the most beautiful places on earth, I can’t express how much I resent it being attached to such grief and unresolved heartache.
    We need to get those men out for so many reasons, their families deserve the peace of knowing their men are in a resting place of their choosing, not the choosing of a monumental corporate failure.

    It is immoral to leave them in there, it is as simple as that.

    Sometimes in life, there are things that just have to be done and this is one of them.

    Those men simply must be returned to their loved ones so they can heal and the land can heal, it is extremely important for us as a nation to make this happen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3 (0)

  2. It’s pretty much unanimous that we should take all the safety measures neccessary to stop any more loss of life in mines.

    The difficult and delicate question then becomes, should any new stricter safety measures be put aside for the recovery of the miners remains?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0 (+1)

  3. In my job, I am aware that at some stage I may have to make the same sort of decision about sending people in to attempt a rescue or not.

    I think the decision not to risk any more rescuers at Pike river was the right one. The chances of success were too low.
    Rescuers rushing in, while heroic, have doubled the casualty list in many accidents.
    Though, I would not criticise them if they had made the opposite decision. It is a very hard one to make.

    I certainly would not like to see more people killed just to recover my body, or anyone’s.

    If the present mine can be made safe enough to enter then the bodies should be recovered as that is the relatives wish. The experts bought in by the families think it is possible..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0 (+3)

  4. Make it a robotics competition?

    Set it up for the uber-geeks as a challenge and offer prizes based on how far in they get…. I know a relative of mine who’d be all over it :-)

    What is clear is that the conventional techniques are not getting the job done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1 (+3)

  5. Kerry said “the bodies should be recovered as that is the relatives wish”.
    You are mostly correct, but I remember one mum on the radio wanting her son to remain in the Paparoas/cathedral/tomb forever. It seems strange to get them out the put them back somewhere else (in a cemetary) or cremate..
    By sealing the mine, forever, and making the Paparoas a tomb/cathedral we give these miners a pretty decent memorial. And the coal can stay there too.

    On another note, “corporate manslaughter” was a term I heard on national radio today..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0 (+1)

  6. I deeply resent that the Paparoas have become a place of grief and despair.

    I am starting to understand (and want to better understand) the Maori concept of being attached to the land and the spiritual requirement for healing and an understanding of its past and its future.

    The West Coast is one of the most beautiful places on earth, I can’t express how much I resent it being attached to such grief and unresolved heartache.
    We need to get those men out for so many reasons, their families deserve the peace of knowing their men are in a resting place of their choosing, not the choosing of a monumental corporate failure.

    It is immoral to leave them in there, it is as simple as that.

    Sometimes in life, there are things that just have to be done and this is one of them.

    Those men simply must be returned to their loved ones so they can heal and the land can heal, it is extremely important for us as a nation to make this happen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1 (0)

  7. Bit hard to ” move on ” when there is still an enquiry going on – there are still questions to answer for the 29 men killed at Pike River , I am sure the families will move on once these are addressed. RIP Boys you will never walk alone

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0 (+2)

  8. Recovery of the bodies must be possible if the families experts have deemed it to be so.Everyone who has experience of coal mining would find it hard to believe that it was not posssible, The degassing of mines is commonplace and although there are complications with a fall of ground these are never insumountable with the right expertise used to accomplish the task. A comment was made that the new safety rules would have to be suspended to carry out the recovery, this so completely wrong, anyone planning such a venture would have to use extreme caution.
    The new rules that have to be implemented in New Zealand are because 29 men were killed due to lack of safety rules which are commonplace in places like Europe and Australia.
    I cannot help thinking thst if there was a current desire to develope production at Pike River the problems of body recovery would disapear.
    All the comments by the goverment and Solid Energy seem to show a desire to recover the drift which is essential to any future commercial development.
    The report of the independant experts should be made public for a debate to take place in the world wide mining community

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 (0)

  9. I have always thought that the Pike River disaster would not have occurred had the mine been opencast. Iit was foolish to build it with only one ventilation shaft and to a design that enabled the build up of methane. Who is responsible for this?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 (0)

  10. I think the decision not to risk any more rescuers at Pike river was the right one. The chances of success were too low.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1 (0)

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