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.
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.