Pike River survivors tell of harrowing escape

The two men who escaped the Pike River Coal disaster say there was a window of time when rescuers could have entered the mine and possibly retrieved the 29 men inside.

According to mining folklore, the safest time to enter a mine such circumstances is immediately after an explosion, but local police and expert teams did not want to take the risk of sending people down the mine and possibly losing more lives.

Daniel Rockhouse and Russell Smith told TVNZ’s Sunday program about that night and Rockhouse said he believes rescuers should have gone in when he got out and he knows for a fact rescue teams would have entered if they had been given permission by authorities.

While he acknowledged the danger rescuers would have faced, Rockhouse said straight after the first blast, the “natural ventilation sucking, sucking oxygen, right up to spaghetti junction” would have given rescuers an opportunity to enter.

Rescue teams may have been able to retrieve the bodies before the second blast hit, but given that there were 29 men unconscious inside, they may not have been able to get them all out before further explosions hit.

Rockhouse and Smith believe police and Pike River Coal should face tough questions about the decision to prevent rescuers from entering the mine.

Smith believes the rescue attempts could have been done in stages, by setting up fresh air bases, but police did not want to take any risks.

"It’s not exactly what mining should be like. The rescue station are trained to go into places that are unsafe… police being involved, they’ve got no expertise on mining what-so-ever."

The Royal Commission of Inquiry is set to begin on 5 April, but the families of the victims believe the inquiry is not long enough to properly investigate the tragedy.

A coronial inquiry confirmed the 29 miners died on the day of the first explosion.

Rockhouse lost his brother, Ben inside the mine and since then his wife has given birth to a daughter, who he held during the interview.

Both Rockhouse and Smith believe it was little more than luck that saved their lives, as Smith has arrived late for work due to a machinery malfunction, so was not with the rest of the team when the explosion occurred.

Rockhouse was retrieving some gravel from a side tunnel at the time of the explosion and was able to escape.

“I was very lucky, very fortunate,” he said, adding that the blast was the loudest and scariest thing he has ever experienced and caused him to go deaf for several minutes.

He did not realise the enormity of the explosion until he went out into the main drive and saw the destruction.

“I was screaming, I was coughing and the gases that I was inhaling made my eyes water, it was just a constant flow of water coming down my face, and by that stage my body had taken too much gas and I collapsed.

“My whole body from my neck down went numb – I couldn’t move at all.”

He said he knew the gases were dangerous and could cause permanent damage.

“I knew it wasn’t good,” he said.

He managed to make contact with the outside, holding onto the service lines when he got up, and was instructed by mine manager Doug Watt to stay low and get out.

“I hung up the phone, and held onto the pipes to make my way out, even though it was a straight downward drive and I couldn’t go wrong,” Rockhouse said.

He then had to make his way 1.7 kilometres to the exit through smoke and gas in the dark, and a couple of hundred metres down, found his mate, Russell Smith.

“He was down on his hands and knees, kinda semi-conscious.”

Smith was so overcome with the toxic gases that he did not know who he was, so Rockhouse made the decision to get him out, because it would take too long for him to recover and be able to walk himself.

“I grabbed his breather and I threw him on the ground, I chucked him over my shoulder, and started walking with him … but he was quite heavy and I as quite weak myself,” he recalled.

Rockhouse managed to be rational enough to turn on the air valves and air line through the mine and was breathing on that, which he said “gave me enough oxygen to get moving again.”

Because Smith’s semi-conscious body was heavy and Rockhouse was himself weak from the fumes, he “grabbed him under the shoulders … and I just dragged him roughly 400 or 500 metres to the fresh air base.”

Rockhouse said it was his duty as a mate to help Smith the way he did.

“I wasn’t gonna leave him.

“He was moving, he was alive, you know, he needed some help.

The distance Rockhouse had to manoeuvre out of the mine would ordinarily have taken about 15 minutes but took them an hour and half.

 Smith’s wife Jo is eternally grateful for Rockhouse’s heroic actions on a night she will never forget.
“He rocks,” she said.

But on the night, “It was just the unknown of knowing what had happened, and he was there, he was there in that explosion.”

Rockhouse’s wife Sarah was in the same position, fraught with terror about what could have happened and the possibility that their unborn child might never meet her father.

“The worst three and a half hours of my life,” she said of that night.

Because Smith was caught in the main tunnel and his oxygen levels were severely running out, he finds it difficult to recall what happened at Pike River on November 19.

One of the primary concerns for the men is the fact that Pike River has only one tunnel to exit the mine and the only way out is the way they entered.

The ventilation shaft, which has a ladder was not an option because it was filled with smoke.

Despite everything they’ve been though, both men say they want to go back underground, as part of the healing and “getting over it”, according to Rockhouse.

“It’s driving me nuts sitting here doing nothing,” he said.

“It’s been very emotional for me … very, very mentally draining.

“I have trouble sleeping at night a lot of the time and I don’t think I’ve had a decent sleep since.’
 

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