The leaking of previously unseen footage from within the mine drift shortly after the explosion only adds to the overwhelming case for re-entering the mine and bringing justice to the bereaved, writes Stephanie Rodgers, a volunteer on the families’ Stand With Pike campaign.
It’s one of those “can’t beat Wellington on a” good days, and I’m sitting in a Thorndon apartment with three legit Kiwi folk heroes: Anna Osborne, Sonya Rockhouse, and Dean Dunbar. Sonya and Dean each lost a son at Pike River Mine. Anna lost her husband.
They’ve come to the capital because apparently that’s the only way to get government to take them seriously. Blockading a road to stop Solid Energy pouring tonnes of concrete into the mine entrance didn’t do it. Getting support from thousands of people up and down the country, and a symposium’s worth of local and international mining experts, didn’t do it.
Walking up to the Beehive and demanding to be taken seriously did it.
Last time, they got a meeting with the PM, and seemed to make progress. The sealing of the mine, which they had already stopped, would stay stopped. They’d work with Solid Energy on a plan to re-enter the drift, the mine entrance tunnel – with drones or uncrewed robots.
It wasn’t ideal, but it was a start. After two months trying to negotiate through Bill English’s nominated representative Nick Smith, however, things stalled. He wouldn’t commit to a timeframe. He wouldn’t guarantee access to the footage taken from inside the mine and drift – images which could show where their loved ones lie, which even the head of Solid Energy and the deputy prime minister had said they should be allowed to see.
Perhaps, they’d started to wonder, they were being fobbed off with empty promises again. They can see 23 September looming. You don’t have to be seasoned political operatives to know what it means when the government starts offering you concessions six months out from election day, gets some good press, then ties you up in terms of reference negotiations and roundtable discussions.
So back to Wellington they came, to send the message that they weren’t going anywhere and wouldn’t be bamboozled by bureaucratic nonsense.
Anna is fighting cancer. She has been for years, but you’d never know it if Sonya wasn’t watching her like a mother hawk and making damn sure nobody pushes her too hard. They’re both teacher aides, and you just know everyone thinks Anna’s the soft one and Sonya’s the growly one; but they’ll both let you know right bloody quick if you’re being silly.
Dean works as a furniture mover, smokes like a chimney, comes across as your typical quiet Kiwi bloke, until you get him talking about Pike River. He probably knows more about that place and what happened there than anyone else besides the professionals. His son Joseph died there the day after his 17th birthday. He wasn’t even on the job yet. He was doing an induction tour for mining newbies.
Something you notice about with the Pike crew is how they speak in the abstract. “Our boys.” “Our men.” It’s a natural coping mechanism. No one could survive six years with no closure, no justice, and very little hope, feeling every bit of the grief you’re entitled to when your husband or son goes to work one day and never comes home. Fighting just to get a basic investigation of the crime scene where he died, and accountability from the people whose inaction or negligence or outright greed killed him.
I got involved early with Stand With Pike, by virtue of being the closest millennial to hand when the crew were trying to get the word out about their picket, battling West Coast cellphone drop-outs and Facebook’s clunky Page Manager app. Contrary to the fever-dreams of Matthew Hooton, I’m not paid for it. It’s just the right thing to do. Because it’s so counter to every value I hold, that after six years, no one has been really held to account for letting 29 men die. Anna and Sonya and Dean and the others should not still be fighting for answers and justice. They should never have had to fight for it at all.
I often think, and I scold myself for being so self-indulgent, that I couldn’t do what they do. I don’t know how I’d keep on fighting after six years of bullshit and broken promises. I don’t get what they’ve gone through and I pray I never will. But you can’t help but wonder when you see them sitting together, talking so calmly about which miners were coming off shift at the time of the disaster (and be more likely to lie in or close to the drift). Or whether images taken within the mine show a pair of spectacles, not safety goggles. And which of the guys on shift when their workplace exploded might have worn them.
They think it’s probably Ben, Sonya’s son, who was 21 years old. His big brother Daniel survived Pike River – he was knocked out by the first explosion but regained consciousness and dragged another miner out the drift tunnel.
What can you say beyond, “Fuck. I’m sorry”?
There’s always new Pike gossip. The families stay in touch, wherever they are in the world. Dean’s heard that one of the Pike managers is a mines inspector over in Australia now. None of them can believe anyone with Pike River on their CV can show their face on a mine site.
Peter Whittall, who never faced charges – the Police deferred to Worksafe, and Worksafe struck a deal to “release” insurance money to the families rather than go to trial – is running an aged care facility over there. It’s called Illawarra Diggers. That gets a grim laugh from everyone.
The Pike families just want justice. They just want closure. But at every turn they’re not only met with bullshit political waffle, but a storm of snide opinions about their husbands’ bodies being “just ash” or lectures on where their sons should be “left to lie”. “Coal mines are dangerous!” the know-alls warn in smugly superior Facebook comments, like anyone needs to be told that. “Re-entering the drift won’t bring your loved ones back” they declare in op-eds, as though 29 families haven’t spent six anniversaries facing that reality.
It’s infuriating because it’s so simple. When a mine explodes, you go in to find out why. When a crime happens, you investigate the crime scene. When 29 men die in a New Zealand workplace, someone has to be held accountable. It’s the only right and proper thing to do. But it hasn’t been done.
The process to make the drift safe to re-enter isn’t new or untested. Yes, it’s risky: it’s a coal mine. But almost the exact same process was done, just a few years ago, at Spring Creek on the West Coast. It’s done all over the world, when coal mines are decommissioned and sealed and mining companies want to salvage equipment and machinery. You deal with the methane. You deal with the ventilation. You get in there safely. You bring the gear out. When coal prices go up, you do it all over to start mining again.
The only difference at Pike River is there’s no money to be made getting justice for dead men. And our government doesn’t seem to want to. The leaking of footage showing two men and a robot inside the drift of the mine three months after the explosion, footage which police apparently decided not to pass on to the Royal Commission, only adds to the sense that they are being misled or fobbed off.
In an election year, National do not want a public conversation about whether profits are more important than people, and the duty that managers have to keep workers safe, and the responsibility government has to protect and defend its people. To hold someone accountable for killing the love of Anna’s life and shattering Sonya’s family and taking away Dean’s boy. A 17-year-old boy doing a fucking induction.
But the Pike families are not going anywhere. They are going to make us have that conversation. And I don’t think I’ll ever do anything in my life as important as standing with them.
For more details on the Stand With Pike campaign, see their Facebook page.
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