Pierced hopes at Pike River

PikeThis week  Rebecca Macfie talked about her new book Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died at the Canterbury University Bookshop in an event put on by The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. It was 20 November 2013 –  3 years and 1 day since the disaster. Everyone in New Zealand remembers hearing the news of 19 November 2010  of an explosion in the Pike River Mine, (46 kilometres north of Greymouth). We waited for news of the miners, and  hoped, as literary director Rachael King put it in her introduction, “for good news that never came”.

The event was opened by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman reciting his beautifully moving poem Mine. It was commissioned by a counsellor working with the Pike River families:

Son, there’s a time when you were mine …

And now the mountain says “He’s mine”.

Rebecca Macfie then spoke. Jo Malcolm – Rebecca’s friend and former fellow journalism student –  asked the questions.

Writing the book

Rebecca was asked to write the book. She was on the phone with Mary Varnham of Awa Press talking about it on 22 February 2011 when the earthquake hit.

The story had been told in “the vehicle of news … a bitsy, truncated, staccato form of communication” and Rebecca knew the Pike River story warranted more exploration – and the inclusion of history, regulation, culture, behaviour and management style.

You just can’t expect little divets of information to convey that.

It is a story that made her boil with anger, “every mother’s story” and she “worried that there would be a lurch to an easy answer”.

Pike River Coal

Rebecca saw the business as “lurching from one cock up to the next” and details:

  • Machinery not working properly
  • A “fruitcake” like hydro-mining system
  • No second way of getting out
  • Compromised ventilation.

She also considered “cooked up forecasts” and not admitting that Pike was a “gassy mine” in its prospectus.

The workers

As part of her articles and writing the book, Rebecca talked to miners and families, and heard their concerns. The workers were aware of issues at Pike. “Lots of people blew a lot of whistles. Hundreds of incident forms were never followed up” Rebecca said. One miner (who died in the explosion) had been thinking of leaving, and was sleepwalking due to distress and worry.

Many of the miners enjoyed the Coast lifestyle. In particular, Australian miners liked that they could come home for tea with the family, unlike the big mines in Australia.

The aftermath

After the explosion, there was an “almighty failure of communication and information”. Peter Whittall (of Pike River Coal) and Gary Knowles (of the NZ Police) were fronting twice-a- day family meetings. But a lot of information wasn’t getting to the families.

After the second explosion on 24 November 2010 at 2:37pm  they decided to deliver the news to the families. The announcement was horribly bungled and “beyond awful”, as families at first thought the rescuers were going in. Then came the words “There is no hope”. Both men claim to have said this.

Rebecca spoke about what comes next. Peter Whittall goes on trial next year. She is still trying to access the evidence presented to the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy (only 10% was presented in open court) but “middling bureaucrats” are not exercising their discretion to allow access to legitimate researchers. The battle goes on.

Rebecca’s book is essential reading – it makes sense of what cannot be made sense of – that 29 men went off to work and never came home.

Find out more about Pike River

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