The West Coast’s Darkest Hour

The explosion at the Pike River mine on New Zealand South Island which trapped 29 workers underground was another in a long line of recent similar mining disasters.

In September, the world waited with baited breath, and even got sidetracked in the scandalous private lives of 33 miners trapped in the San Jose mine in Chile.

They were met with celebration and relief as they were winched to safety after more than two months trapped underground.

Closer to home, the Beaconsfield miners were also rescued amid media fanfare and jubilation.

For many watching the events of the Pike River disaster unfold, it was assumed a similar situation would present itself once again, and the 29 men would march out victorious and heroic from their underground bunker.

Instead, the harrowing announcement of a second explosion inside the mine ruled out the chance of any survivors.

The families of the workers were so shocked that many of them fell to the floor during a private meeting at the mine site, after expecting to hear good news of progress made by the robots sent into the site, that the men had been found alive, or at the very least, there were signs of life.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn broke down as he left the briefing saying this disaster was "the west coast’s darkest hour."

Beverly Raphael, from the University of Western Sydney – School of Medicine, heads a specialist research unit dealing with mental health issues during and following disasters such as this.

She told Australian Mining the prolonged tragedy in the Pike River Coal mine disaster is the most difficult for the families to deal with, as they rebuild new hope only to have it continuously thwarted.

She says that the unhappiness and anger many family members felt is normal and expected when dealing with their anguish.

"Anger is a part of grief, particularly with sudden and unexpected death. They are asking why it was their loved one who had to die."

During the touchy days after the initial explosion, many spoke to media outlets, saying they could not understand why more was not being done or why rescue teams had not yet entered the mine.

For many people on the ground level desperately upset and anxious about those trapped kilometres below, it seemed nothing was happening and their friends and family had been abandoned.

A couple of Australian journalists even went so far as to question the involvement of the police chief in the rescue efforts and compared the situation to 9/11, proclaiming that emergency services in that situation did not let the fire stop them from attempting rescues.

Luckily, these people were not in charge of the rescue efforts. Those who were weighed up the risks and assessed of previous mine explosions.

They thought of situations like the Moura disaster in Queensland, when a second explosion ripped through a mine two days after the initial blast, even more powerful than the first.
Fortunately, like Pike River, no further unnecessary life was lost at in Moura, as rescue crews had not entered the mine prematurely.
But what seemed like a lack of response for families at the site was actually the result of careful planning and consideration from world experts on mining explosions and safety procedures.

Many said they should have headed down the mine to rescue the 29 men straight away, because according to mining folklore, the moments after an explosion are the safest to enter.

But the mine has continued to blow, with the total number of confirmed explosions at five, as well as a fires burning inside the mine and another on the materials used to seal the opening.

Continued activity at the mine is placing the possibility of ever being able to enter it and rescue the bodies in doubt and Professor Raphael says this will further impact the grieving families.

"Not being able to see the body of a deceased loved one is terribly hard, because in their hearts they’ll keep wondering.

We did research after the Granville disaster and found it is a crucial part for people in how they recognise the death and loss and get some closure.

Without that, the families will continue to hope."

The continued explosions have also delayed the use of the Gorniczy Agregat Gasniczy (GAG) machinery, with high toxicity levels and unpredictable activity making it too difficult and dangerous for retrieval teams to enter.

The GAG engine, sent by the Queensland Mine Rescue Service (QMRS), emits carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapour, starving the mine of oxygen and preventing combustion, allowing rescuers to enter the mine once the fire is extinguished.

A spokesperson from the QMRS told Australian Mining that the service sent six tonnes of equipment and two full crews of people to operate the engine and assist New Zealand authorities in any way that they can.

NSW Mines Rescue General Manager Paul Healey spoke to Australian Mining the day he returned from operations in New Zealand.

"I heard the report on the radio just after the first explosion, so I made contact with the New Zealand mine rescue and offered our help.

The next morning we had two senior staff on a plane. Since then we’ve had teams flying in and out as needed to assist. We still have one team there reviewing the rescue and assisting with recovery plans."

Despite the best efforts of the various rescue teams and promises of support, for the families and friends of victims, the fact remains that 29 brothers, husbands, fathers and friends were lost simply doing their job.

Neville Rockhouse is feeling the effects of the disaster more than anyone else.

Neville worked at the mine himself as a safety officer, as did his eldest son, who was one of the two who escaped the initial blast.

But his other son, Ben, was trapped underground.

Between the news that his son was trapped underground and that of the second blast which killed him five days later, Neville also lost his father, who had a massive heart attack four hours after the initial explosion.

Professor Fearne says the small community will grieve together, and it is paramount they receive continued support in their grief process.

"After the ‘Honeymoon Period’, as we call it, authorities need to make sure they are not forgetting about this community.

"After 10 days the story disappears from the front pages and from the front of people’s minds and they can feel abandoned and find it difficult to access resources they were promised."

The memorial at the Omato Racecourse, which looks out over the Paparoa Range where the mine is located was a tragic reminder of the realities of the Pike River disaster, as 11 000 mourners spilled over the capacity of the grandstand onto the grassed areas, to pay their respects and remember the loss for the small community.

Earlier in the week, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced a Royal Commission, the highest level of investigation in the country, saying it is the right action to be taken.

"Royal Commissions are reserved for matters of very significant public interest and the Pike River mine tragedy is without question one of those," Key said.

The commission will investigate the cause of the explosion, the cause of the loss of life, the search and rescue operation, systems at the mine, and rules and regulation of the industry as a whole.

"We owe it to the men who died in the mine to find out what happened and why. We must find out all we can so we can make sure this tragedy isn’t repeated," Key said.

As well as a coronial inquiry, the Department of Labour, NZ police and Pike River Coal are all undertaking inquiries.

Mining life always comes with a risk attached to it, but this is often forgotten until situations such as these bring it back to the forefront of people’s minds.

"The recent events in New Zealand highlight the hazards we confront and are a somber reminder of why the NSW mining industry must never deviate from its goal of ‘zero harm’.

Safety is a journey and it is clear that we must never take our eye off the ball," Deputy CEO of NSW Minerals Council Sue-Ern Tan told Australian Mining.

However, the effects for the miners themselves is one few people can understand, according to experts.

Some may be so traumatised by the incident, they can no longer return to the mine, and certainly not below ground.

Others may continue on with their work, seeming fine to do so. Their grief may hit them when they least expect it, and often in places they didn’t imagine.

As for the calls that underground coal mining should be banned in New Zealand, industry experts say it would be pre-emptive to make such an enormous change to a country that depends heavily on coal mining.

"There are a number of investigations underway into the Pike River tragedy. It would be inappropriate to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the incident, but it is important that investigators get to the bottom of what has happened. We must learn from this tragedy and we must never forget it," Tan said.


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