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‘Moved to tears before the faces of the lost’ – Fiona Kidman on the fight to bring the Pike River men home

Among the protesters who gathered last week to oppose the sealing of the Pike River mine was the great New Zealand author Dame Fiona Kidman. Here she explains why more must be be done to retrieve the bodies of the 29 men killed in the 2010 disaster.

The drive from Greymouth to the Pike River picket line is as wild and beautiful as any tourist could hope to see. You pass through stands of native bush, towering rimu, nikau palms and cross bridges over surging rivers. Then you come to some open farmland, and on the side of the road there is a space, a corner of land that a farmer has set aside and placed 29 rocks, brought up from the river. Each rock carries the name of a worker who died in the explosion in the Pike River mine on 19 November 2010. Most of the rocks have a little headstone bearing messages and tributes. It’s like a tiny cemetery – except, of course, that it is not a cemetery because what is there are rocks, not bodies.

Ian and I set out for the picket line on Friday morning, because after six long years the families of the miners are no closer to retrieving the remains of their loved ones – fathers, sons and grandsons, brothers, husbands, lovers – than they were at the beginning of this nightmare, even though Prime Minister John Key vowed then, when the mine exploded, that it would happen. We believe they needed support.

The ID tags of the lost miners. Photo: gg.govt.nz

The ID tags of the lost miners. Photo: gg.govt.nz

The state owned enterprise Solid Energy is about to seal off the mine with 30-metre walls of concrete so that nobody can ever enter the mine again. In fact, nobody has entered the mine since the fateful day of the explosion, so nobody is quite certain what happened, and what they will find. That is the problem. Some experts on the side of Solid Energy say that it is not possible to enter the mine safely. The people of Greymouth have also been offered expert opinions that say it is possible to enter if not the mine proper, the area known as the drift, where they believe many of the men may lie. And these locals, of whom many have spent their lives in mines, are willing to go in and find out.

If they can’t prevent the seal-off, will the families ever know what Solid Energy needs to hide? Because nobody has ever been held accountable for the manifold failures that we now know occurred in that mine. In her first-rate book Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died, investigative journalist Rebecca Macfie, outlines a dreadful string of mistakes, from consent being given for a mine of unsuitable design, the lack of proper monitoring equipment, the pressure from management to ignore safety requirements, and effectively only a single exit. We know this much, but is there more? We don’t know. But as far as the families of the Pike River men are concerned, the mine is now a crime scene.

The Solid Energy trucks carrying workers preparing the site for the seal-off pass along the road around seven every morning. A locked gate stretches across the road barring entry to everyone else. And this is where the family members stand in a picket line, hoping to prevent entry. It is a last stand, a brave cry of defiance. Interestingly enough, local contractors like Fulton Hogan and some electrical companies are standing with them, refusing to go the mine, at a moment when work is hard to come by on the West Coast and times are lean.

So lean that getting to Greymouth is almost a deterrent in itself to those who want to stand in solidarity alongside the families. There are no airlines servicing the route to the town any longer. Air New Zealand flies to Hokitika, Sounds Air to Westport, and from there it’s a case of finding ground transport to the town. All the same, we decided to go. When you visualise the Pike River disaster, you think of the thousands of people who have gathered for memorial services over the years. But when we saw the picket line on television there were just a handful of people, about 20. And out there in that wide space, they looked so lonely.

I turned to Ian, and said, shouldn’t we be there with them? Ian has links to the Coast going back nearly 60 years. He is going on 85. He simply looked at me and said: “Let’s go.”

We made contact with Bernie Monk, who lost a son in the mine, and is a leader among many of the families, to check that we would be welcome. The answer came back, please come.

And so, there we were, on the 18th morning of the protest, the sun breaking through the clouds, the mountain wreathed with mist, waiting for the trucks to arrive. Across the gate the protesters had placed messages to the government. Only the government can now prevent Solid Energy carrying on with its nefarious task. And, in the end, the buck stops with John Key. The messages were squarely aimed at him. NATIONAL CARES ABOUT WORKERS SAFETY – YEAH RIGHT or THE KEY TO THE MINE IS JOHN KEY, and others, more bitter and personal. But what struck me most was not so much these messages but the photographs on a board of the 29 lost men. Some of them were the ages of my grandsons. If we had had moments of wondering why we had made this journey, it was here in front of us.

The muster was larger than the day before. Cars blocked the roads, a steady stream of protesters arriving by the minute. People who saw each other most days nonetheless embraced. On the back of a truck, breakfast was being prepared, sausages sizzling on a portable barbecue, home made chocolate muffins, strong hot coffee. Flowers and wreaths were placed in front of the men’s pictures, a handful of roses, yellow chrysanthemums with two fabric monarch butterflies hovering over them; weka emerged from the side of the road and tried to carry off these bright trophies. I shooed some away as I talked on my cellphone to various media outlets, while the people stood gathered behind me. When I went out live on Morning Report, the broadcast was being relayed on a speaker; hearing my own voice behind me gave me strength to say some of the things I believed. I said that I had some messages for Mr Key. I said that governments rise on promises, they fall when they break them. The interviewer suggested that the prime minister had only committed to trying to get the men out. I said that there was still time to try harder, and that I hoped that he would. Or words to that effect.

There were hugs all round after that. The trucks arrived, the police moved in. This has at all times been a peaceful protest led by responsible people. There is no violence on this picket line, just determination etched on the faces of people in despair of being heard. Eventually the trucks were allowed through, although there were raised fists as they passed. We stood around for a little longer. There were some announcements and then over the speakers “Brothers 29” was played, a song written by journalist Paul McBride, who was there on Friday too. He composed and sang it for the first memorial service for the men; it has become the anthem for the Pike River families.

Some of the protesters considered staying on to stop the trucks leaving, to see what it was like to be locked on the other side, give them a taste of it. Not that they would leave them there for the weekend. That is not what they did. They believed, as Dean Dunbar, told me, that they wouldn’t stop those guys from going home to their families. “They should be able to go home to their families at the end of their day’s work. Our men couldn’t.” His 16-year-old son Joseph was among the 29 mine victims. He died on his first day at work.

On the long drive back to Greymouth, Bernie Monk stopped at the side of the road so that we could walk amongst the tributes on the farmer’s land. Amongst the rocks laid in remembrance.

Some people say, as justification for sealing the mine, that the men “are lying in a beautiful place”. They are not, they are entombed in a mountain amongst the wreckage of a mining disaster. In a country that has a tradition of respect for it’s dead, whether here in New Zealand, or in war graves on the other side of the world, that attitude seems peculiar, for want of a better word.

If it’s humanly possible, it’s time to bring the men home.

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