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Going south

At Pike River


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 and nīkau palms – and cross bridges over surging rivers. You come then to open farmland and, on the side of the road, there is a space, a corner that a farmer has set aside and on which have been placed twenty-nine rocks, brought up from the river below. Each carries the name of a worker who died in the explosion at 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’s not a cemetery, because there are no bodies. The area is known as Atarau, and this is the Atarau Memorial.

Ian and I set out for the picket line on a Friday morning, 2 December 2016 because, after six long years, the families of the miners who died were no closer to retrieving the remains of their loved ones – their fathers, sons and grandsons, brothers, husbands, lovers – than they were at the beginning of the nightmare. At the time of the disaster, then prime minister, John Key, had said: ‘The first thing I’m here to give you is absolute reassurance: we’re committed to getting the boys out and nothing’s going to change that.’

But something did change.

We believed these grieving families needed our support. Ian had a history with the West Coast, stemming from the days when he was a young teacher working at the Blackball school, not far from Greymouth and Pike River.

The stories that had emerged from a royal commission of inquiry, conducted in 2012, revealed a worksite that had been set up in haste and was under-resourced from the beginning. Coal has been the dark living heart of the West Coast for more than a century, its production essential to the livelihoods of thousands of people above and below ground. It’s dirty work, hard work performed in subterranean tunnels, away from the light, with the danger of explosive methane gas ever present. There had been deaths before: the Brunner Mine in 1896, sixty-five dead; the Strongman Mine at Runanga in 1967, nineteen dead. In both explosions, all but two of the bodies had been recovered. Not one body at Pike River had been brought out. For there was a second explosion, five days after the first. The families were told that rescue was impossible and that all the men would have been consumed by fire.

As fossil fuels were replaced by natural power sources like wind and solar systems, coal production on the Coast had slowed and the region had become poorer. This new mine was to have been a saviour, a revitalising shot in the arm for Greymouth, the town at the edge of the sea, where most of the men lived. But machinery and other equipment in the mine were inadequate. Chaos, we were told, often ruled, and the workers themselves had begun to question health and safety precautions. The owners, an Australian Consortium called Pike River Mine, were desperate for a return on their investment, but little coal was being produced.

The picket line Ian and I joined had been set up because Solid Energy, the state-owned enterprise that bought the mine following the accident, was about to seal it off with 30-metre walls of solid concrete, so that it could never be entered again. In fact, nobody had gone into the mine since the day of the first explosion, which meant that nobody was quite certain what had happened, and what they would find if they went in. That was the problem. Some experts on the Solid Energy side said it was not possible to enter safely. But the people of Greymouth had been offered expert opinions that suggested it was possible to enter, if not the mine proper, the area known as the drift, where it was believed that many of the men lay. These locals, who had often spent their lives in mines, were willing to go in and find out.

If they couldn’t prevent the seal-off, the families would never know what Solid Energy, and by implication, the government, needed to hide. Because no one had ever been held accountable for the manifold failures that we now knew had occurred in that mine. In her first-rate book, Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died, investigative journalist Rebecca Macfie had outlined a dreadful string of mistakes, from consent being given for a mine of unsuitable design and the lack of proper monitoring equipment, to the pressure from management to ignore safety requirements and the provision, effectively, of only a single exit. Was there more? We didn’t know. But as far as the families of the Pike River men were concerned, the mine was now a crime scene.

The Solid Energy trucks carrying workers preparing for the seal-off drove along the road around seven every morning. A locked gate barred entry to everyone else. This was where the family members stood in the picket line, hoping to stop the trucks. It was a last stand, a brave cry of defiance. It interested me, however, that some local contractors and electrical companies were standing with the families, refusing to go to the mine, even though work was hard to come by on the Coast and times were lean.

So lean that getting to Greymouth was almost a deterrent in itself. There were no flights from any cities. It was possible to get flights to Hokitika to the south, or to Westport, a couple of hours’ drive north. From there it was a case of finding ground transport to the town. All the same, Ian and I decided to go. We thought of the thousands who had gathered for memorial services in the first years after the disaster. But when we watched images of the picket line on television, there was just a handful of people, perhaps about twenty. And out there in that wide space, they looked so lonely. I remember turning to Ian and saying, ‘Shouldn’t we be there with them?’ Ian was going on eighty-five. He looked at me and said, ‘Let’s go.’

We made contact with Bernie Monk, who had lost his son, Michael, in the mine and is a leader among the families, to make sure that we would be welcome. The answer came back, ‘Please come.’

And so there we were on the eighteenth day of the protest, sitting on the road, the police line behind us. The sun was breaking through the clouds, the nearby mountain wreathed with mist, as we waited for the trucks to arrive. Across the gate the protesters had placed messages to the government, which alone could now prevent Solid Energy from continuing with its nefarious task. The messages were aimed squarely at John Key. ‘NATIONAL CARES ABOUT WORKERS’ SAFETY – YEAH RIGHT’, or ‘THE KEY TO THE MINE IS JOHN KEY’, and others, more bitter and personal. What struck me most, though, were the photographs on a board of the dead men. Some of them were the ages of our grandsons. If we had had moments of wondering why we had made this journey, the reason was here in front of us. It was impossible not to be moved to tears before the faces of the lost.

The muster when we arrived 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 of the week nonetheless embraced. I met Dean Dunbar, whose seventeen-year-old son had died on his first day in the mine; Rick ‘Rowdy’ Durbridge, father of a missing son; Sonya Rockhouse, who lost a son too (his brother was one of only two people to escape the fatal first blast). Her friend Anna Osborne, whose husband had died, was ill that day and couldn’t come; she and Sonya were forces in the movement. 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 cell phone 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 gave me the strength to say some of the things I believed about this situation. I said that I had some messages for Mr Key. I said that governments rise on promises, but fall if they break them. When 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.

There were hugs all round after that. The trucks arrived, the police moved in. This had been at all times a peaceful protest led by responsible people. There was no violence on this picket line, just determination 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 there for a little longer. Some announcements were made and then over the speakers a song boomed out. It was ‘Brothers 29’, written by local journalist Paul McBride, who was there that day too. He had composed it and sung it for the first memorial service; it had become an anthem for the Pike River families.

Some of the protesters considered staying on to stop the trucks leaving, so the drivers could see what it was like to be locked on the other side. Not that they would leave them there for the weekend. That was not their style. As Dean told me, ‘They should be able to go home at the end of their day’s work. Our men couldn’t.’ Joseph, his son, just a kid, had dreamed of going into that mine.

On the drive back to Greymouth, Bernie Monk stopped at the side of the road so that we could walk quietly among the tributes on the farmer’s land. As we did so, Bernie told us about some of the men who had died. His own boy, Michael, had worked with a building contractor; he was not a regular mine employee. The fresh face and wide smile in his photo, the broad shoulders, suggested his father’s build. Bernie is a rugged Coaster, with a shock of white hair and a barrel chest. He’s the owner of the hotel at Paroa on the outskirts of Greymouth, where we had stayed the night before. It’s a family business, has been for generations: another son, Al, works there, and a daughter, Olivia, was working in the kitchen at the time (she now owns a café in Greymouth). Kath is the quiet matriarch, a Coaster to the bone from further down south, a big Catholic family. The pub, with its low-ceilinged, timber-lined bar and restaurant, stands at the edge of the grey and green rolling Tasman.

Ian and I tramped along the white stony beach in the afternoon before catching a ride back to the airport, wondering if we had made any difference. As we walked back to the hotel, I glimpsed Bernie, wearing an apron and standing behind his pub counter, an energetic man stilled for the moment. From the beginning of the nightmare at Pike River, he had been the stalwart, fronting the media over and again, speaking in his earthy growl, supporting family members even when his own and the family’s grief threatened to overwhelm them all. Earlier that year he had been made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his service in this time of crisis. I remember his face that day, caught in repose – set, stoic, a look that said we will never give up.

Someone got in touch with me after we had travelled to the barricade to say, in justification for sealing the mine, ‘that the men were lying in a beautiful place’. They are not: they are entombed in a mountain in the wreckage of a mining disaster. In a country that has a tradition of respect for its dead, whether here or in war graves on the other side of the world, that attitude seems peculiar to me. This is something I return to often when I think of Pike River.


In the week that followed, support surged from many quarters. In Auckland, Alexandra Dumitrescu, a writing colleague of mine, began an online petition asking the government to stop the sealing of the mine from going ahead. It quickly gathered several hundred signatures. Damien O’Connor, the West Coast Labour MP, advised us to get the petition into Parliament the following week, before the Christmas recess. It was essentially Alexandra’s petition but she volunteered to put my name to it, given that I had made the public stand. The credit was hers.

While that was unfolding, there was a shock announcement on 5 December, three days after our trip south: John Key had resigned. Nobody seems quite sure why he did this. I believe it was coincidence. But a shiver ran through me when he was asked by a journalist if he had any regrets. He shrugged, as he was wont to do, brushing it off with his apparently affable, yet steely-eyed smile. ‘Oh, I’d like to have got Pike River done,’ he said.

I was racing against the clock, preparing the petition that now had more than five hundred signatures. Bernie suggested I contact the PR people who had been helping to put the case before the public.

It wasn’t a very satisfying meeting, as I was repeatedly asked to explain myself and my intentions. I sensed, in the uneasy atmosphere, a desire for ownership of the situation. But then, I thought, it would be easy for someone new to undo or undermine the work that had been done, to make mistakes.

Ian and I rushed through the corridors of Parliament House on the day of the deadline, urged on by MP friends from the left. The petition was presented with fifteen minutes to spare before the recess began. Afterwards, a flash mob of supporters gathered on the edge of Parliament grounds. Bernie had come up from the Coast, along with other members from the family group. Someone got me a soapbox and we took turns addressing the crowd that had gathered in the street.

Six days later it was announced that a select committee, comprising politicians from both sides of the House, would meet in February to hear and consider the petition.


The royal commission of inquiry report in 2012 had found that Pike River Coal failed in its management, and that its health and safety systems were inadequate. Mines were overseen by the Department of Labour, as it then was; the Minister for Labour in the National government, Kate Wilkinson, had immediately resigned her portfolio when the report appeared. In the wake of the inquiry, Key had offered an apology to the families. While the royal commission made it clear that the fault lay with Pike River Coal and, by implication, its executive director, a man called Peter Whittall, Key also agreed with the findings that the regulatory environment in the mine had not been effective for a long time. This should have been the responsibility of the Department of Labour, now known as WorkSafe.

In its report, under the heading, ‘The Families of the Men’, the commission had stated that the recovery of the remains from Pike River now lay within the control of Solid Energy and other parties to a July 2012 recovery deed. This had defined the new owner’s obligations in relation to body recovery and contained mechanisms that enabled the government to exercise some oversight.

But here it was, six years after the disaster, and no attempt had been made to recover the men’s remains. Solid Energy had said that the re-entry was too dangerous and that any attempt would further endanger lives. Had this been true, it would have been fair comment, but plans for a safe re-entry had been put forward. The mine was being sealed up at the behest of the government, thousands of litres of concrete poured daily.

Throughout that summer of 2017, I toiled over the statement to be made in support of the petition. Ian ran the household while I dealt with piles of information. The PR people and I came to an understanding of sorts as they fed information into the document. Most of it I wrote. It was a relief to know that technical issues would be addressed by Tony Forster, who had been Her Majesty’s principal inspector of mines in Britain for twenty-five years before being recruited by the New Zealand government to be the chief inspector of mines here. Following the Pike River explosion, he had stayed in the role for three years before returning to England. He was also a board member of the International Mines Rescue Body. He would be sitting alongside me when we headed into the select committee hearing. Tony was also the brains behind the re-entry document. On his other side would be Bernie, there as spokesperson for the families.

In the background, another scenario was playing out. Earlier, Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse had taken a case against WorkSafe for accepting a payout to the families from Peter Whittall’s insurance company, in exchange for dropping negligence and criminal nuisance charges against him and Pike River Coal. The two women argued that this was unlawful and that nobody had been brought to account for failures in the mine’s management. The courts were not showing a lot of sympathy, but Anna and Sonya were preparing to battle the case all the way to the Supreme Court. They had been supported in their struggle by Helen Kelly, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, the young warrior woman who had fought many battles on behalf of workers. Helen had died two months before Ian and I entered the fray.


The night before the hearing our team met at the headquarters of the Public Service Association to rehearse our opening speeches. Earlier in the day, Key’s replacement as prime minister, Bill English, had made a concession, perhaps seeing the way things might go. Work on sealing the mine would stop. However, he said that under his watch nobody would ever enter the mine. The media was already heralding this as a victory for the Pike families, but we all knew it was a concession, not a victory in terms of what was really needed: a thorough examination of the site.

The next morning, we gathered again at a hotel room on The Terrace, up the road from Parliament. We stood around nibbling takeaway breakfasts and drank a lot of very strong coffee. At eight we made our way en masse down The Terrace, the yellow ribbons signifying our link with Pike River pinned to our lapels. The committee room was packed with family members and the press gallery was seething too. Seated down the left side of the room were four members of the National government; on the right, three members of the Labour Opposition, Damien O’Connor for the West Coast, Andrew Little, the Opposition spokesperson for mines, and Clayton Cosgrove, plus Winston Peters from his right of centre New Zealand First Party.

I spoke at length. Pike River Mine, I said, was situated in a remote rural area, difficult for most New Zealanders to access. Greymouth, the nearest settlement, was 46 kilometres away, and itself a small town, far from the main centres, on the margins of the land. Although most New Zealanders remained moved and saddened by the disaster and its aftermath, it was difficult for them to offer much practical support. As time passed, I told the committee, the families had become increasingly isolated from mainstream concerns. The petition I had presented sought to raise awareness of the difficulties they faced in getting their alternative evidence heard, in the hope that there would be more support for a proper intervention.

Tony spoke after me, with eloquence and a wealth of detail about how a re-entry could be made. Then he said something very personal. ‘My family love me a great deal,’ he said, ‘and I love them. They’re constantly terrified of the work I do. But I can tell you unequivocally that I would go into a mine when the necessary work had to be done to make it safe. It would be a measured risk.’ He finished by saying he would have no hesitation about entering Pike River Mine. Then Bernie spoke for the families.

I rounded off our submission by pointing out that Solid Energy had sold its assets to three different companies six weeks earlier and that the sealing of the mine had begun just days later, suggesting commercial expediency rather than issues of safety. When I was asked what the motivation of the Solid Energy directors was, I said that I couldn’t read minds, but I thought it might be convenient if Pike River disappeared from the books and the problem went away.

The chairman of Solid Energy, a man called Andy Coupe, who is a professional director, had the opportunity to respond. He was on record in the Westport News as saying that he was fed up with criticism from the West Coast: ‘I’m a little tired of the pick, pick, picking away.’ He thought the region should be applauding the board and ‘frankly, the senior management, for what we’ve achieved and I’m never hearing a word about that. All we’re getting is negative, negative, negative.’

Now he turned his wrath on me. I have never been so flattered by abuse. I was, he said, ‘a woman with a total lack of comprehension of the complexities of the issues’. Ah, women, I thought, that’s the problem. I was, he added, ‘derogatory and offensive’ in suggesting a cover-up. It was an interesting turn of phrase. What I had actually said was that the crime scene, if indeed it was, should not be covered up, meaning, of course, that the mine should not be sealed from view. Finally, it was done. We felt a sense of quiet jubilation as we made our way out, pursued by cameras. It had gone better than we hoped and there was definitely a sense that we had Solid Energy and their supporters on the run. The government members had looked crushed and disorganised. The Labour team had been vigorous in their support.

We carried on to the Old Bailey, a pub on Lambton Quay in the heart of downtown Wellington. Bernie bought lunch and drinks all round. Bernie and his wife Kath, Ian and me, Tony, Anna and Sonya – there’s a photo of us all with our arms around one other, Tony a head taller than the rest of us. Dean and, as I remember it, Rowdy, wearing his trademark wide-brimmed hat, turned up. There was a sense of solidarity and togetherness. We would ‘Stand by Pike’, the motto that had emerged from the families and their supporters. There were hopeful tears, laughter, stories relived. It seemed as if we would be in it as a team forever.


October 2017 rolled around. After a bruising election campaign, Winston Peters had had the opportunity, for the second time in the country’s history, to anoint a government, after the result was too close to call. He had chosen to go into a coalition with Labour and the Greens, led by Jacinda Ardern. During the campaign Labour and New Zealand First had promised to do all that was humanly possible to retrieve the miners from Pike River Mine.

Ardern’s swearing in was due to take place towards the end of the month. On Labour Day, the 23rd, Bernie invited us to hear an afternoon concert in the Michael Fowler Centre, a ‘Cantata Memoria’ composed by Sir Karl Jenkins in memory of the children who died in the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster; it was also dedicated to the Pike twenty-nine. Three hundred performers, including an eighty-voice children’s choir, took part in the concert, which was conducted by acclaimed New York conductor, Jonathan Griffith. The music soared around us, moving from darkness to light, ending with the ‘Lux Aeterna’, part of a Requiem Mass, a movement that develops with growing optimism, as the word ‘light’ is sung in various languages.

Three days later, Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as prime minister. Ian, a lifelong Labour supporter, was euphoric. We both felt so full of hope.

On the following Sunday, Ian fell. He died the next day.

Bernie was in town for his funeral. I didn’t see him for a long time after that.


Over the next year or so, I was distracted. That’s about the best I can say. I lost track of what was happening at Pike River Mine. I was aware that, in the month following the election, Anna and Sonya won a famous victory in the Supreme Court when the payment made on behalf of Peter Whittall was finally declared to have been illegal. With the initial support of Helen Kelly, who had died the previous year, they had made a powerful and principled stand, an achievement I respect. It was, they were quoted as saying, ‘the end to cheque book justice’.

In that same week, Cabinet would approve the establishment of the Pike River Recovery Agency, set up to investigate what happened in the 2010 disaster and look into the possibility of manned re-entry of the drift. A government-appointed group, to be called the Family Reference Group (FRG), was also established to represent the families in relation to the Pike River Recovery Agency and the government. This was to be headed by Anna, a move I understood, in light of her newfound presence in the political arena. Sonya, Rowdy and Bernie were also appointed, as well as the PR people (one of whom is a documentary filmmaker). Nearly all of them had strong links to the union movement, as did Andrew Little, who had been national secretary for the Engineers Printing and Manufacturers Union (responsible for miners) at the time of the explosion. Little was appointed Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry.

Two families had consistently requested that there be no recovery because they did not want their relatives’ remains disturbed, and one other had dropped out of contact. They were the only ones who were not signatories to the recovery agency’s founding statement, in which they set out the following requirement:

Stand With Pike Family Reference Group (FRG) has full and sole delegated authority from the overwhelming majority of the Pike River families (28 out of the 31 families) to represent them in all matters relating to and arising from the re-entry and recovery of the drift. The Agency will not initiate any contact with a Pike River family about the re-entry or recovery of the drift, except through the FRG. If a Pike River family contacts the Agency about a matter concerning the re-entry or recovery of the drift, the Agency will inform the FRG of the contact and the matters discussed, unless the family has requested the matter be treated confidentially, which will be pro-actively offered by the Agency.

The families, it appeared, were required to remain silent unless they spoke through the FRG. Anna headed the group. She, Sonya and Rowdy formed a nucleus, plus two of the PR consultants. At the outset, Bernie Monk was part of this group. This cloak of silence would later lead to insurmountable tensions within the group. Some would say that it turned inward and that government agencies were being protected. But at that point, I thought all was well.

On 14 November 2018, came the welcome news that the government had agreed to re-enter the drift, the 2.3-kilometre tunnel connecting the outside world to the mine. At the beginning and end of each shift a drift runner had been used to transport the miners to and fro along the tunnel. Because the explosion had occurred around the time of a shift change, there was a possibility that some of the miners’ remains might be found in the vehicle. As well, the electrical components that powered a ventilator fan, and other vital working parts, were housed at the far end of the drift. The police had been asked to lay criminal charges of negligence against the directors of the mine, but they maintained that until evidence could be presented, they had no case. The government’s decision and the commitment of funds represented a huge breakthrough.

In late April 2019, Anna Osborne wrote and invited me to go down and join the Pike River families for the mine re-entry at the beginning of May. There would be a gathering in Greymouth the night beforehand, where Prime Minister Ardern and Andrew Little would be in attendance. The following day, we would all travel by chartered buses to the mine entrance. I knew this was something Ian would have wanted me to do. Both my children were keen that I go and insisted on sending contributions for my airfare to Hokitika. I rang Bernie and Kath and asked if I could stay with them; they volunteered to pick me up at the airport. I let Anna know that this transport had been arranged.

A curious thing happened when I was in transit at Christchurch airport. Sonya phoned me to say the opening had been delayed. Perhaps I would prefer to turn around and go back home? Nonplussed, I asked if all the events were postponed too. After a short silence, she said that they would go ahead as planned. I continued on my way to Hokitika.

That evening, with the Monks, I attended the gathering in Greymouth, which took place at a hotel in the town centre, in a long room decorated with twinkling fairy lights. I sensed something was amiss. I looked for Anna and Sonya and saw them among a throng of people. It was as close as I got. I sat at one end with a small group. The prime minister went around the room glad handing. She stopped at the table where I was sitting, chatted about make-up and jewellery with a group of delighted women and then moved on. Other government ministers circled carefully. I spoke to Andrew Little. We had met, I reminded him, at the select committee hearing, two years earlier. Yes, he said, yes, thank you, of course. I approached Damien O’Connor. I’m talking to this lady, he said, bending towards an elderly woman dressed in red.

I was puzzled. Since those heady days at Parliament, something had changed. On the way back to Paroa, I mentioned to the Monks that I had found it strange that I hadn’t caught up with Anna and Sonya. They were quiet and I let it go.

In the morning we assembled at the Moonlight Hall on the outskirts of town, surrounded by a big empty paddock, hundreds of us waiting to catch our designated buses. We had all received police clearances in the week or so beforehand. Everyone was given a lanyard with their name, showing which bus they were to board. The first bus would carry the zone one visitors right to the portal (the entrance to the mine); the zone two bus was for the next lot of invited guests, who would be set down a short walk away, at the White Knight Bridge. Everyone else would come in the following buses and make their way along the road from where they were parked. I have the lanyard still. ‘Zone two’ had been crossed out and ‘bus two’ had been replaced by ‘bus four’.

So we travelled to the foot of that great mountain where the portal stood. Mist swirled around the black beech forest. When everyone was assembled, a loader was to have removed the seal that had been placed there by Solid Energy but, owing to the delay, that didn’t happen. Members of the newly established Pike River Recovery Agency were to have entered the drift at this point. We did get to walk up to the portal face and touch it. There were blessings and speeches, and some songs.

Late that afternoon, back at Moonlight Hall, I caught up with the Monks again, and met Rebecca Macfie, chronicler of the disaster. As we stood in the paddock, I caught glimmerings of what had happened during my absence.

Because of the tight rein the government had put on the FRG, there was now a widespread perception that decisions were not being relayed beyond the nucleus of the group. When it came to information, you were either in or you were out. A year later, Bernie had chosen to be out.

Over dinner that night, I was told that some families later felt they were being excluded from information. Bernie had been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, which meant that he couldn’t be as open and transparent as he wished. His door had been open twenty-four hours a day and that was the way he wanted to keep it. Initially, he had signed the document, but when some of the families expressed their concerns, he had decided that what he was doing didn’t sit with his beliefs. He was now a spokesperson for twenty-two of the families; this group is the Pike River Families Committee.

Bernie shook his head. ‘Anna and I should be on the same page,’ he said.

But they weren’t any more.

I hadn’t known any of this on my return to Pike River. It seemed that I was out too.


Early morning at the roadblock to Pike River Mine.


I walked along the shingly rough beach again. It was a surly morning, cold, short, green waves curling and collapsing at my feet. I thought I might not come back, but then again, that a part of me might never leave. I knew about the margins of the world and about desolation. I knew something about coal. I understood that it was no longer as necessary in people’s lives as it had once been. Were coal miners easy for the world beyond to forget? There are times when your life feels as if it is falling apart, when you think you’re the only person in the world who is experiencing grief. I knew about accidents. Accidents happen. The moment is so sudden, so unpredictable.

But hadn’t the miners who shovelled coal in the Pike River Mine understood that things were not right? Wasn’t this accident one that could have been prevented?

‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ – that line from Yeats’ poem may be well worn but it’s still true. Grief is an irrational force, so overwhelming, so particular to the individual, that once it’s entered there’s no predicting how it will take and turn you. What is one person’s good decision is another’s hell.

Bernie and Kath, Anna, Sonya, Rowdy – broken hearts, all of them, just like mine. But now the team was divided, torn apart by their sorrow.

Ian walked beside me on the beach that morning. I had a plane to catch, back to Wellington and another ordered world, one where I could plunge once more into the daily round of life, the place where I kept myself intact after the fall. I could have let the mine go then, the way I was trying to let go of the past and not having much luck.

But some things you can’t quit. There were still no answers to what happened that day in the mine. The voices of the twenty-nine were still to be heard.


With Ian at the picket line.


The Legislative Council Chamber at Parliament is approached through a Grand Hall, covered with a ceiling of stained-glass domes. The chamber itself is an ornate room surrounded on its upper floor by galleries. A canopy of puriri supports Italian marble pillars and the panelled walls are made of heart rimu. The carpet is a deep shade of red. This lush room has been obsolete for seventy years when it comes to parliamentary procedure. It’s used for formal occasions, like the state opening of Parliament by the Queen if she happens to be in New Zealand, or by the governor-general if she’s not. It hosts other big gatherings that are important to the government, such as this commemorative service to mark the tenth anniversary of the first explosion at Pike River Mine. I’d been invited. The crowd was very well groomed.

By then the re-entry of the mine had been in progress for more than two years. It seemed to be going well, a skilful operation. Nobody had been hurt.

The room filled with hundreds of people. I introduced myself to the man sitting beside me, Steve Hurring, Helen Kelly’s husband. During the tributes, a clip of Helen speaking would be played.

As speeches were made – by the prime minister, by Rowdy and Sonya – we were reminded of the explosion that had happened at 3.44 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. And at exactly 3.44 p.m. on this day, we kept a minute’s silence. We remembered the twenty-nine men who had died and also paid tribute to Daniel Rockhouse and Russell Smith, the two who had made it to the surface, barely conscious and smelling of methane. When the power failed, the ventilation fan stopped. And yet for the next five days the families were told that the men might still be alive in the refuge chamber, where there would be fresh air, first aid and drinking water. This was the refuge chamber that Daniel and Russell had attempted to use during their escape, but realised had been decommissioned months earlier.

Anna Osborne had written a powerful reflection for the order of service, remembering her husband. She reminded readers that Milton, or Milt, as she called him, had been a town councillor and a volunteer firefighter, who had spent his life helping people. She had to keep going for him. Anna has been unwell for most of the years since the explosion; she now uses a crutch. The toll of the fight has been heavy.

Drinks and refreshments followed in the Grand Hall. I didn’t know anybody. I did spot the PR people, but they were busy. They usually were.

Down at Aratau, other mining families had gathered at the memorial rock garden.


It’s 15 July 2021. Another six months have slid by. The other day a call came from Bernie Monk. The Pike River Recovery Agency had reached the end of the drift a couple of months ago, where they had recovered various debris, but neither human remains, nor the drift runner. About 30 metres between the end of the drift and the mine entrance there is a blockage, what they call a rockfall.

It’s not a rockfall, Bernie tells me, it’s coal – not hard for miners to shift. Tony Forster has formulated a workable plan to move the debris, to get to the electrical equipment and the vital evidence they’re looking for. But the government has said, Enough is enough, we are not going any further. Too costly, too dangerous. They plan to seal the mine in a week or so.

So here we are, back where we started years ago.

I’ve been talking to friends about this over the past days. Some of them have told me to stop. Stop going on and on, it was all a long time ago. But of course it’s a long time ago; that’s what inert governments want people to think; they wear down opinion, just by dragging things out. My friends think I should stop beating myself up, it’s not my responsibility. Neither is finding justice for Albert Black or seeking understanding for Jean Batten. But justice, understanding, truth – they are surely the responsibility of us all.

And with those thoughts in my head, I find myself on a Wellington street corner waiting for Pike River family members and their new lawyer, Paddy, who went to high school with Michael Monk. He has taken up the fight for an old mate.

I’m waiting with Tom and Jack, members of the World Socialist Organisation. Tom interviewed me a week or so beforehand. Friends have taken to calling me Pinko. I wonder to myself what my aunts and uncles would have said, and smile inwardly. They knew I was trouble. It’s cold out here on the street. We were to have met at the café next door to the High Court but it’s closed. The plane from Hokitika is late; it’s graduation day in the city and the streets are teeming with students in their gowns; a major road into the city is closed for repairs and the taxis bearing Bernie and Kath and Paddy have trouble getting through the traffic chaos. Outside the High Court a bevy of media people shiver in the wind. We don’t look at them; the moment hasn’t come. We are joined by Chloe and Kilani, mother and twelve-year-old son, the boy an extraordinary young speaker, fatherless since his infancy; he will address the cameras repeatedly before the day is out. Carol and Steve arrive, their only child one of the twenty-nine. Carol had met one of her boy’s mates in the airport. She hadn’t seen him for a long time, and her first thought was, Goodness, he’s got old. Then she remembered that her son would have grown older too.

Eventually, we are all together and it’s time to go. We enter the High Court, through security that is tighter than at airports. While most of us wait in reception, Bernie and Paddy go through to the court’s registry office and serve an injunction on the government, calling on them to stop. Stop sealing the mine. Stop.

This is how our press release begins:

Twenty-two of the 29 Pike River families are supporting an application for a Judicial Review filed today challenging the decision made by Minister Andrew Little which rejects a plan to continue a short distance into the Pike River mine and instead begins a process to permanently seal it before the Police underground investigation has been completed. The Government has rejected a proposal by the Pike River Independent Technical Advisory Group on behalf of the families to continue into the mine as far as the main fan, which has been established as the likely source of the explosion and the most critical forensic site within the mine. The Technical Advisory Group is made up of the very same advisors that wrote the drift re-entry plan which was implemented by the Pike River Recovery Agency.

The numbers had shifted. Twenty-two families in one group, three in the other. And the PR people. Four now missing.

Things fall apart.

Divide and conquer.

So it goes. We are outside again, blinking in the deepening day, the cold biting now. The reporters press in.

I don’t know how this will go. I can’t tell you what will happen.

I do know that the royal commission of inquiry’s findings were archived back in 2012, with instructions that they not be opened for a hundred years.

So really, nobody alive will ever know the full story. Not the families and their children. Not grandchildren born since the explosion.

All we can know, on a cold day in the capital, is that the fight for Pike River goes on. We will never stop fighting, Bernie says. Never. I try to imagine what it would be like if 29 people were buried in rubble under Wellington.


There are things I don’t understand about the aftermath of the Pike River Mine tragedy, and I don’t expect I ever will. Some will say it was about money, others that it was about individuals, others that it was simply a government which lost interest or had its own back to cover and that government agencies were being protected. I can’t speak to those. Elsewhere, I have written about outsiders. I have felt like one myself – when I was a child, again when I was a young mother starting my life as a writer in suburbia and, later again, when I stood outside the mainstream of mid-twentieth century writing in this country. I cannot claim to be an outsider now. But I recognise it when I see it in others.

At Pike River, I saw a group of proudly independent people, battlers not victims, working at the margins of the land, who perceived themselves as outsiders, caught up in terrible events, struggling to make their voices heard. It had fallen to them to learn the language of power, the trappings and guile behind successive governments, to accept the indifference of people beyond the community who wanted them to ‘move on’, to hold on to what they each saw as the truth of their loss.

But truth is slippery and one person’s truth is not necessarily another’s. Perhaps that’s what it comes down to, people seeing things differently. After a while, perceptions blur and what once seemed clear cut is not so any more. At least I understand that.

In March 2021, Andrew Little had told Cabinet he would not seek further funding to explore the mine workings. Apparently, he had told the Family Reference Group about this, but not the twenty-two families who no longer saw themselves as fully represented. In July 2021, the sealing of the mine began: 30 metres of concrete now blocks the access tunnel. In September, Little and Bernie Monk released a joint statement as part of an agreement with the families’ lawyers to end the legal action begun earlier in the year. It says: ‘Towards the tail-end of 2019 the Minister had foreshadowed to the Family Reference Group that going beyond the drift was unlikely. The Minister now accepts that the families who were not represented by the FRG were not advised and were not included in this communication.’ Further on he says he ‘accepts that his decision not to explore the feasibility of re-entering the mine workings should have been communicated to all Pike River Family members before it was presented to Cabinet’ and that this ‘caused hurt to several family members as a result’.

Post script. Subsequent to the High Court action which had to be abandoned, Pike River Mine was sealed in mid-2021. A process of drilling bore holes into the mine from the surface was then begun by police, and cameras dropped down them.

On 17 November 2021, almost eleven years to the day after the disaster, intact human remains were discovered. It appears that they cannot be recovered now; so far there is no evidence of a fire in the area where these men were found. We do not know how long they survived the first blast. This is one of those stories that can never end, will never be told in its entirety, a legacy of pain that can never be healed.

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