Pike River Mine disaster book – an ‘ordinary’ tragedy extraordinarily told

“Tragedy at Pike River Mine: how and why 29 men died” by award winning New Zealand business journalist Rebecca Macfie is a compelling,fact-upon-fact account of New Zealand’s worst mining disaster for almost a century.

Her storytelling has you feeling included in the actual explosion at 3.45pm on that fateful Friday in November 2010, but best of all, she carves a detailed path from when the Pike Company’s treachery started in the early 1990’s, devoting more than two thirds of the book to the build up to that tragic moment.

The book draws you into the emotional and traditional realms of coal mining as seen in mining towns around the world and uses the experiences of more than 150 individuals to thread the disturbing story of Pike. 

Anyone with the tiniest speck of coal dust in their veins will empathise with her perspective on the tragedy.

At the forefront is the clever use of women, so often the quiet worriers of the mining industry as their husbands, fathers, brothers and partners seemingly trudge off underground, homemade fulsome crib tin in their kit and macho demeanor amongst their colleagues as their risk denial trademarks.

In geologist Jane Newman for example, the foremost authority on the coal seams of the Paparoas, the story behind the inadequate geological mapping and gas sampling by the Pike promoters is laid out in an easy to understand thread that highlights one of the one-of-many reasons the mine failed so tragically.

Nan Dixon, mother of victim Alan Dixon and a third generation West Coast miner, tells her story of caring for Alan as he boarded with her during working days and her life in mining with a father,brother, husband and son all miners making her hard wired to the industry for all of her 79 years.

And the extra cup of compassion she poured for the legal team representing the families at the Royal Commission with a week’s supply of home baked goodies delivered to the Greymouth Court House every Monday, the very same goodies that filled Alan’s crib down the mine.

Macfie’s narrative partially draws on the Commission’s proceedings as she sat through most of  the public hearings, but importantly for the reader, she paints a human face to its deliberations.  She avoids the easy option of focusing on this quasi legal fete, where more than 70 lawyers were at play during the public hearings. 

There are many ironies in the story as well as new insights, all dealt to with the soft hands of a writer who is aware that it is a story that will draw tears. The opening Prologue section of the book describes the moments before the first explosion and the call from the control room to the pit advising of the flume pumps being turned back on after three hours downtime.

Control room operator, Dan Duggan, is talking to Scottish engineer at the face, Malcolm Campbell and the chat is detailed in the text, before suddenly ending amongst a deafening background roar, clearly the explosion.

Macfie poignantly and cleverly uses the Campbell link as the last miner spoken to ending the narrative in the last chapter with Campbell’s known intentions to head off gold mining at the weekend on a colleague’s property.  He wanted to win enough gold for two wedding rings for his upcoming marriage to his local fiancée.

Possibly the biggest irony of the story is also in the Prologue as Duggan is the control room operator and the explosion killed his brother Chris.

Pike emerges as just another ordinary mine disaster. 

The nature of the tragedy, such as involving multiple family members like the Duggan brothers, is compounded across many fronts. 

Ordinary issues have been seen in almost every coal mining disaster worldwide, like an over confident and careless operator; a regulator that shut its eyes to multiple violations of the regulations; commercial imperatives that came before worker safety; no management action on extensive hazard reports; no dedicated ventilation staff.

These factors are seemingly ordinary behaviour and have been repeated in mining tragedies through the ages, and on the West Coast previously, and in the same coal seam previously.

The comprehensive illustrations in the book include important new material.  A photo of a steel switchboard cover from the mine workings underground is included,traced by its still legible asset number, that was blasted from its mounting in the drive, then 100 meters’ vertically up the vent shaft and into the trees on the top of the Paparoas.

The story addresses the so called ‘window of opportunity’ for the rescue team to enter the mine. 

It highlights the gas readings that showed conclusively that the mine was on fire recorded in the evening of the first explosion and confirmed within 18 hours – of how the Pike staff, Police and rescue team had viewed the portal footage of the blast within a few hours and knew then that the concussion from the blast was unsurvivable.

This issue was hammered in the media at the time and Macfie tells us how the Prime Minister, John Key, on visiting the mine three days after the first blast, personally asked each of the rescue team on duty at the mine their views – a unanimous ‘it’s not right to go in’.

They wanted the mine sealed to avoid a second explosion and knew that mine disasters are littered with rescuers being killed as well. As recently as September 2001, 13 Alabama miners were killed including 12 rescuers 50 minutes after the first explosion when a second blast hit. 

Pike blew four times in nine days.

The role of the Police as incident controllers and their bizarre approach to managing the experts on site, moving all decision making to a non-mining panel in Wellington. Their decision to withhold two key facts from the families, the CCTV footage of the first blast at the portal and that the mine was on fire, is analysed. Readers will surely grimace at this betrayal.

The bizarre behaviour of the Police began shortly after they were advised of the blast. The District Superintendent dispatched to manage the disaster was turned back to Nelson, some three hours away by his bosses to collect body bags while enroute to the mine early on the Friday evening. 

The Assistant Commissioner of Police in Wellington, appointed to oversee matters at about the same time, Googled ‘mines rescue service’ to get an idea what may emerge as he had no idea what they did.

The expert opinions of the mines rescue chiefs and seven of the thirteen most qualified mine managers in New Zealand onsite, counted for nothing with the Government agencies in the critical five days between the first two explosions.

The non-gassy Chilean copper mine rescue of 33 miners after 69 days trapped underground three months earlier, clouded the minds of those not familiar with the chemistry of coal and was also heavily played up in the media.  The book even tells of Prime Minister Key getting a personal call from the Chilean PM offering help with the rescue.

In the middle of all this farce was the Pike management team, in total denial because they had built a mine that they believed to be bullet proof much like the Titanic was iceberg proof.

Macfie’s investigations and research for this book are extensive and thorough.  Because of the conglomeration of contributing factors to the explosion, this book will likely not be the only scholarly treatise of the Pike tragedy.

However, based on the quality of the storytelling, it will possibly be the best.


“Tragedy at Pike River Mine: how and why 29 men died” by Rebecca Macfie.  Published by Awa Press, Wellington, New Zealand. To be released in November. NZ$40. Orders to www.awapress.co.nz.

Reviewed by Gerry Morris, former NZ coal industry journalist.

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