Pike River tragedy remembered 10 years on: ‘New Zealand stands with you and the Pike 29’

Families of the Pike River victims say little has changed to strengthen health and safety practices which could have saved the 29 men who lost their lives 10 years ago.

“My husband would be 64. He never got to see his beautiful granddaughter. It’s things like that that really hurt,” said Anna Osbourne, who lost her husband Milton.

“It didn’t have to be this way. Our laws need to be strengthened. It’s appalling.”

Osbourne, a member of the Pike River Families Reference Group along with Sonya Rockhouse and Rick (Rowdy) Durbridge, were in Parliament yesterday for the 10-year commemorative service.

They shared a minute of silence, heavy with emotion, with several dignitaries including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and then fought back tears as they read out the names of those who died.

Before the silence, the service was played a video that included radio communications just before the first blast, including a request to speak to Milton Osbourne.

The video then showed a wave of debris and dust being expelled from the mine’s entrance following the first explosion.

“Anyone underground? Anyone?” a voice over the radio was heard saying.

As they watched, Rockhouse put her arm around Osbourne as she became emotional. Ardern, seated next to them, also dabbed her eyes.

On Friday, November 19, 2010, at about 3.44pm, an explosion ripped through the Pike River underground coal mine, followed by subsequent explosions. Two men made it out alive but another 29 were unaccounted for.

The Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy found that the “immediate cause of the first explosion was the ignition of a substantial volume of methane gas”, but could only speculate on what might have triggered ignition.

“The mine was new and the owner, Pike River Coal Ltd (Pike), had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal. Its health and safety systems were inadequate,” the commission’s report said.

Ardern told the service the tragedy at Pike River “shoud not have happened”, and the workers were exposed to unacceptable risk.

She paid tribute to the Pike River families.

“We are her because of your efforts… You are the ones who said, ‘Never again.’

“New Zealand embraces you. New Zealand wishes you rest. And finally, most importantly, New Zealand stands with you and the Pike 29.”

Osbourne made an impassioned plea for stronger health and safety practices.

“This tragedy happened because of greed and ignorance. Managers and directors were paid huge money to manage the project and protect our men. These individuals failed our men miserably, along with government departments of the day.

“This mine was a ticking time bomb, and our men paid the ultimate price. They were killed doing the hard yards for a company that didn’t value their lives. Pike put production over safety.”

She gave a scathing assessment of WorkSafe NZ, saying its investigations were weak, enforcement was poorly resourced, and employers were often simply not prosecuted.

Only a day in court would deliver justice for the families, Osbourne said.

“Since Pike River, there have been 700 New Zealanders killed in the workplace. That is another Pike River disaster every five months since, and it is barely getting better.

“Our laws are simply not being enforced. This changes now.”

Durbridge, whose son Daniel Herk perished in the mine, described the anguish that followed the explosions.

“The mine blew, took’em all … To make things worse, if you could possibly imagine, the deception stated, like the boys were going to be all right and we were going to go in and get them.

“That didn’t happen, did it? Not at all.”

Rockhouse, whose son Ben was killed but whose other son Daniel was one of two people to walk out of the mine that day, said the families had been sidelined by Pike River and then government agencies.

“We became disempowered. Spectators.”

They now felt they were “partnered” with the Pike River Recovery Agency.

Afterwards, Osbourne said the service was “emotional” following a 10-year journey that included the heartache from the loss of 29 lives, outrage over attempts to permanently seal the mine – which the families successfully fought – and frustration at the lack of accountability.

WorkSafe laid charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall in 2013, but the case was dropped after a $3.4 million settlement was paid – a deal the Supreme Court later said was unlawful.

Osbourne remained determined to have justice for the families and their day in court.

Police have been part of the recovery of the mine’s drift in case there is forensic evidence that could justify charges.

As of Monday, the recovery had made it 2146m into the drift, just shy of the end of the drift including the roof fall (an area of tunnel that collapsed in following the explosion, where some workers who perished may have been).

The recovery operation hopes to make it to the roof fall by Christmas and then return to Pit Bottom in Stone – a 600m network of tunnels that was previously roped off as a potential crime scene.

That area contained electrical and water equipment – all potential clues that could shed light on what happened underground 10 years ago leading to the explosion.

Remembering the 29 men who died in the Pike River Mine on November 19, 2010

Conrad Adams, 43, Greymouth
Daniel (Dan) Herk, 36, Runanga
David (Dave) Hoggart, 33, Greymouth
Richard (Rolls) Holling, 41, Blackball
Koos Jonker, 47, Limpopo, South Africa
Peter (Pete) Rodger, 40, Perth, Scotland
Blair Sims, 28, Greymouth
Keith Valli, 62, Nightcaps
Terry Kitchin, 41, Runanga
Joshua (Josh) Ufer, 25, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia
Zen Drew (Verhoeven), 21, Greymouth
Kane Nieper, 33, Greymouth
Riki (Rik) Keane, 28, Greymouth
Malcolm Campbell, 25, St Andrews, Scotland
Glenn Cruse, 35, Greymouth
Allan Dixon, 59, Runanga
Christopher (Chris) Duggan, 31, Dunollie
William (Willie) Joynson, 49, Maryborough, Queensland, Australia
Stuart (Stu) Mudge, 31, Runanga
Peter O’Neill, 55, Runanga
Brendon Palmer, 27, Greymouth
Samuel (Sam) Mackie, 26, Christchurch
Milton (Milt) Osborne, 54, Ngahere
Joseph Dunbar, 17, Christchurch
Benjamin (Ben) Rockhouse, 21, Singleton, New South Wales, Australia
Michael Monk, 23, Greymouth
John Hale, 45, Hokitika
Andrew (Huck) Hurren, 32, Hokitika
Francis Marden, 41, Barrytown

Timeline of events

March 2004: Approval given for Pike River Coal to open an underground mine.

October 2008: The mine formerly opens.

February 2010: After a number of delays, the first shipment of coal from Pike River is exported.

November 19, 2010: A methane gas explosion occurs deep inside the mine – two workers walked out but 29 remained missing.

November 24, 2010: A second explosion occurs – Pike River Coal chief executive said there was no chance the workers were still alive.

November 26, 2010: A third explosion rocks the mine.

November 28,2010: The mine is sealed after a fourth explosion.

November 29,2010: The Government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster.

December 13,2010: Pike Rover Coal goes into receivership.

January 14, 2010: The police abandoned attempts to recover the 29 bodies.

November 5, 2012: The Royal Commission recommends changes to health and safety laws, finding the miners were exposed to “unacceptable risk”.

August 15, 2017: Prior to the 2017 election the Labour party, Green Party, Māori Party, and United Future signed a cross-party agreement to re-enter the mine.

31 January 2018:The Pike River Recovery Agency established.

14 November 2018: Minister Andrew Little approves single re-entry of the mine.

21 May 2019: 30m barrier breached and the mine was re-entered.

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