A Mines Rescue brigadesman’s perspective on the Pike River Mine

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My husband and I lived in Greymouth in 2010, we were a coal mining family.  The day Pike River Mine blew up and the days following changed us profoundly, as it did for so many.  This is a Mines Rescue brigadesman’s perspective on the Pike River Mine.   It’s my husband, it’s personal and it still hurts.  This is what he told me:

Pike River was a small mine.  It was impressive on the outside.  It was touted as New Zealand’s largest mine.  It had the biggest bath house, the biggest coal washing plant, the office block was set out like a corporate Buddhist retreat.  Once you got underground it was very different.  Everything had been put into the flash wrapping on the outside.  Pike was grim.

I visited as part of a Mines Rescue familiarisation, as we visited all the working mines, Roa, Terrace and Spring Creek, so when the shit hit the fan we would have an idea of where we were going.  The entry to Pike was a portal on the bank of White Knight stream over a bridge into a 5 metre high concrete arch, then a 2.7km walk up a hill at a 1 in 20 rise to get to the mine workings.  Further in past cross cut 1 (as I remember it) was the Grizzly, an underground coal crusher, a short maze of oversized roadways, deep puddles of mud and heaped coal fines where the stone drive hit the coal, high places where machines had been driven into the roof and then pulled back to relocate the coal seam, low places and dips and sumps.  The day I went in no cutting was taking place due to breakdown.  I saw one continuous miner sat in a 400 litre pool of hydraulic oil because of a broken hose.  The road header in the next section couldn’t work as the Jugs (underground loaders) was out of service.  We visited the return shaft, the so called 2nd egress.  It was ridiculous.  Have you ever stood at the bottom of a waterfall in the pitch dark in a howling gale and shone a torch up it?  Would you consider climbing it?  My thoughts at the time were that no one could get out.  I was disturbed by the amount of loose coal on the ribs and roadways and what I thought was a lack of stone dusting.  Stone dust is applied to the roof, rib and roadway to suppress coal dust explosions.  Coal dust explodes with more power than gun powder.  The other impression that struck me at the time was the size of the roadways.  They were big, some places 5 x 5 metres and up to 6 metres.  I could see the difficulty or impossibility of erecting barricades,  barricading is a technique whereby temporary seals are erected.  The seals  by the way are built by the miner using whatever he can scratch together in the time he has before he is gassed out or the 35 minute of filtering his self rescuer will provide him runs out.  These seals have to be airtight so they can be pressurised from inside using the mines compressed air system, if the hoses and pipe work survived the fire or explosion.  Pressure has to be maintained inside to keep irrespirable gasses out.  So these were my impressions, small mine, big roadways, inadequate stone dusting, no 2nd egress.

The next time I was at the mine was Saturday afternoon, the 20th of November.  That’s when the lies started.  The lies disguised as promises.  People in suits making promises to people in tears.  We went to the mine and we waited.  We knew there was a possibility of a 2nd explosion, there always is.  We wanted to go in.  They were our brothers, in some cases literally.  Our managers, all trained brigadesmen and miners who also wanted to go in held us back.  Imagine you are on the North Shore in Auckland and you have to walk across the harbour bridge, there is 5 tons of explosives attached to the bridge with a lit fuse, you don’t know how long it is.  Do you go across, do you send your mate across.  That’s the choice they had to make.  Then there was Peter Whittall, I listened to his talk over the following days, his talk of miners barricading, holding on to each other, breathing through their compressed air hoses off non existent fresh air bases or refuges, by Saturday afternoon I knew no one was coming out.

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On the following Wednesday, we were finally given our briefing to enter the mine.  We were going to do our job, what we trained for, we were going to get the men out.  We stopped for lunch and the mine blew up, the secondary explosion had taken 6 days but finally arrived, then the 3rd and 4th and then the fire.  The roof and rib support were destroyed, the roof came in around the Grizzly, we sealed the mine.

Then came John Key, more promises to people in tears, and now 4 years later the families are still waiting.  Men in suits are still lying.  The men are still underground.  Two points are important.  The police didn’t have final say on who entered the mine, the Statutory Manager does.  It was Pike Management who had control of the site.  If we had started sealing the mine after the 1st explosion it would have been inertised (oxygen depleted, no fire) with far less structural damage and we could started re entry within weeks.  The mine can be re entered, it’s just expensive.

John Key got his 3rd term, Peter Whittall is a free man and men in suits are still lying to people in tears.

12 COMMENTS

  1. There we were, in the middle of our engagement party when the news of the Pike River Mine explosion came through, a disturbing revelation that I tried not to take as an omen for my future nuptials. Then came, over time, accounts such as the Asian man told in court of working at Pike River for a scant number of weeks which is all his nerves could stand after witnessing for himself the hazardous conditions there for the men who did the actual hard graft at the coal face. These men were reportedly bribed with an offer of $10,000 each to work longer hours in order to increase product output from the mine when management were well aware of the potential danger to the work force. A scandal of course, like many others where Money in the form of short term profits for those in charge is the most treasured bottom line of all. RIP to the sacrificial 29 and Kia Kaha to those family and friends they left behind. Never forgotten.

  2. There have been some reports in the media that suggest a report many months old says the mine can now be entered safely.

    At the same time, Solid Energy say that while there is only one escape route (among other factors), they consider it too risky.

    It’s hard for the general public to reconcile these (seemingly) contradictory positions.

    Samantha, can you help explain (using as non-technical language as you can please) how the report that says it is safe, overcomes the “only one escape route” scenario.

    Cheers.

  3. Does no-one find it rather odd that prior to the disaster this mine was considered safe enough for at least 31 men to be in it?
    Every time I hear Dean Dunbar speaking it brings a tear to my eyes, man is he able to put into incredible words what all that has happened means.
    I think that what it really is, is a forensic site and therefore it should not be a corporate decision whether it ever gets re-entered or not, it is the responsibility of the authorities

  4. This is just one aspect of corporatocracy we have blindly walked into. The defenders of this system of governance, don’t give a bloody damn about workers, the could not care less about families, they just love money.

    And it was the desire for easy money which drove this tragedy – one lazy, short sighted, money grubbing individual after another. And yeah, they all wore suites.

    Thank you for the blog, it is just more confirmation, on how evil and blind they are to their own villainy, our elites have truly become.

  5. Reading it initially it was sobering – however reading it aloud to my partner as we lie safely in our bed on a Saturday morning actually brought tears to my eyes. However that situation seems to just be so typical these days – bright shiny things on the outside hiding the horror show that is underneath.

  6. That collage of portraits brings it all home in a very emotional and personal way. Sobering reading, kia kaha families.

  7. In the mining regulations there is a requirement for a second egress when driving ( tunneling ) in coal after a certain distance. The re entry of the Pike drift doesn’t require any driveage . It is sealed off from the workings. The drift is just the access tunnel to the mine. Just like the driveway to your house. It is a stone drive.(cut in stone) to get access to the coal seam. I think Solid Energy are using this technicality as an excuse. I’m not an expert and I’m no longer mining but that is my belief. I worked at Spring creek for solid energy. I don’t trust them

  8. I’ve not wanted to say this before but I was working security for a particular TV station when that incident happened. We had to man the after hours front desk …and intercept foreign news media calls…which were coming from places such as Russia , Scotland, France….well..

    If I recall…it happened on the Friday afternoon…and the Herald mine plan didn’t come out til the next Monday. I received a call from a woman who – operating as a psychic – had helped the Australian police find two murder victims graves…

    She told me to draw on a piece of paper a ‘ T’ , then turn it upside down…then join an ‘ F’ on the vertical part of the ‘T’…from there she told me where the people were…I will stop there.

    When the Monday Herald came out..before anyone of the public knew the plan of the mine..there it was…the ‘T’ and the ‘F’ …

    The following unfolding story made me angry and sad and bitter…and I knew…..this was all because of big business shareholders profit margins…that when juxtaposed against the neo liberal free market bullshit , the deliberate destroying of the unions…became an indictment against that whole stinking ediface.

    And as it came out…in times past there would have been union affiliated mines inspectors who would have shut that whole thing down until it complied properly with health and safety ‘duty of care’ regulations…and to hell with the bloody shareholders. The Aussies couldn’t believe it , they were flabbergasted by the conditions.

    If the moderators think this too sensitive, by all means delete this… but I believe the wait has been for sufficient time to pass for forensic examining to be even more difficult.

    29 good men didn’t come home because of this bullshit free market fucking crap. And it still pisses me off.

    • How tight is your tinfoil hat…? The debate and discussion on here was credible and informative….right up until your post.

      You….you make it SO easy for the Right to dismiss the Left as a bunch of crackpots when you inject this…this NONSENSE into the conversation.

      Well done *clap clap clap*

      • Yes …Im sorry for that…but that is what happened..in fact ..even the head receptionist said to submit it…which I had my doubts…for the reasons you are implying.

        It is also why I said Ive not wanted to submit it …for two reasons…one is the nature of it, the source ,also in deference for the families involved.

        But it certainly has been niggling at the back of my mind. As it would yours if you had been in that same situation…or any other person.

  9. Everyone will remember where they were when this absolutely tragic event happened. I was in labour with my daughter. I remember the guilt I felt on the day I was receiving my precious child, people lost their precious children, husbands and fathers. The most sickening aspect being that it was avoidable. RIP gentleman. My heart goes out to those who lost their love ones. I am sad for them and I feel angry for them because this despicable crime has so far gone unpunished.

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