© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2020

Pike River Mine Disaster - A Decade On

Nikki Carroll
Pike River 29
Pike River 29  Pike River Mine Family Reference Group

November 19th 2010 should have been a normal Friday shift for 31 men who headed into the depths of the Pike River mine, but at 3.44pm a massive explosion occurred.

Sonya Rockhouse says her first memory of that day was seeing the breaking news on TV and being filled with panic as her two sons, Ben and Daniel, were both working in the mine along with their father Neville, who was the Health and Safety officer.

To add to the tragedy of the day for the Rockhouse family, as Sonya was racing over to Greymouth from Christchurch, she received a phone call to say that Neville’s father had just died. 

“Most likely because he had just seen on the news that two of his grandsons were in the Pike River mine…the doctor said his heart wouldn’t have taken it.”

By the time Sonya arrived in Greymouth, her oldest son Daniel had dragged himself and fellow miner Russell Smith out of the mine and both men had been rushed to Grey Hospital, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Crosses helmets
29 Crosses and Helmets Nikki Carroll

Bernie and Kath Monk’s son, Michael, was also working in the mine that day.

The first Bernie heard about the explosion was when daughter Olivia rang to see if her brother was home from work yet.

Bernie didn’t for one moment think his son could have been killed in the mine, he just assumed Michael would have stayed to help with the rescue, which was why he wasn’t home.

The next update Bernie heard was a radio bulletin which said two of the miners had come out, so he thought his son would be okay too.

However, as the hours passed and there was no word from Michael, he started to worry.

One of Bernie’s biggest regrets from that day is how he broke the news to Kath, who was at work.

“I rung her…I told her there’s been an explosion at Pike River and Michael isn't home…”

PR29 tags
Pike 29 tags Nikki Carroll

Rebecca Macfie, author of the 2013 book ‘Tragedy at Pike River Mine – How and why 29 men died’ was a senior writer for the weekly New Zealand Listener at the time. 

She was waiting for a flight to Christchurch when newsflashes about the incident came up on a café TV. 

After discussions with editor Pamela Stirling, Macfie began to educate herself on the Pike River mine through researching the available public company documents.

“What are the catastrophic failures that allow a mine that is not even [fully operational yet] to blow up and kill nearly everyone, in New Zealand, in 2010.”  Author, Rebecca Macfie.

Mine explosions history
Mine explosions history Pike River Recovery Agency

TV3 news reporter Jeff Hampton had flown to Greymouth on the day of the disaster and says over the first few days following the initial explosion the families of the men trapped in the mine were hopeful that a rescue operation could be mounted. 

But on November 24th a second explosion ripped through the mine. 

According to Hampton, at the family meeting later that day, Peter Whittall, Pike River Mine CEO, was still giving false hope that the 29 men could be saved.

“Gary Knowles, the policeman in charge, stood up and basically said we don’t think there are any survivors in there.”

PR Mine satellite map
Pike River Mine satellite map Pike River Recovery Agency

Following on from the investigation undertaken by the Royal Commission in 2011/2012 to establish what had led to the disaster, Macfie’s research for her book in 2013 showed a number of safety procedures weren’t being followed, and in particular pointed to the fact this was a “…deep-rooted catastrophe that was entirely avoidable.”

Macfie also believes the locals knew the risks of working at Pike River mine were higher, but the miners there were getting paid better than those at other mines.

Memorial rock plaque
Pike River Memorial plaque Nikki Carroll

Over the ensuing years the families of the Pike River 29, as they became known, remained staunch and committed to getting re-entry to the mine.   

By keeping in regular contact with the media about their plans and ideas they kept pressure on officials to take action.

After battling for seven years the families were hopeful an end was in sight when a new coalition Government was formed in 2017.

Promises were made in Parliament regards going into the mine to look for evidence which would enable the Police to bring charges.

For the past two years the Pike River Recovery Agency (PRRA) has been working to re-enter the mine and, despite the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown, Chief Operating Officer Dinghy Patterson says huge progress in re-entry and forensic scene examination has been made this year. 

August 4th 2020, the loader driven by one of the two survivors, Russell Smith, was recovered 1581m into the tunnel.

Mid-September the Pit Bottom in Stone (PBIS) area, which is 1885m up the drift, was reached. 

This area is vital to the investigation as it is home to mining infrastructure, such as underground electrical substations and switchboards.

PBIS is also the area where the other survivor, Daniel Rockhouse, was refueling a loader when the original explosion happened on November 19th 2010.

The PRRA are currently two kilometres up the mine access tunnel and hope to reach the roof fall caused by the initial explosions before the end of this year.

Russell Smith's loader recovered

One of the most important things to remember about the Pike River Mine disaster is that 29 men – husbands, fathers, brothers, sons - needlessly lost their lives.

Sonya, Bernie and Kath have never officially been told their sons died in an explosion in the mine and they, like many of the families, are angry no one has yet been held accountable for their loved one’s deaths.

The two survivors whose lives were changed forever on that day also need to be remembered. 

Sonya says it’s been a tough decade for Daniel and he’s gone through some really dark times.

“Even though I was lucky enough not to have lost him...in a small way I did lose a piece of him because I don’t think he’ll ever be happy.”

After 10 years of fighting for justice for their men, the Family Reference group's hope is that enough evidence is collected to enable charges to be laid and prosecutions made for the unacceptable loss of 29 lives.

Looking forward, a memorial track is currently being developed from near the mine entrance to link up with one of DOC’s great walks, the Paparoa Track.

The Pike River Recovery Agency (PRRA) will hand the mine land over to DOC in early 2021, once re-entry is complete.

A memorial to the 29 lives lost is to be established in the area as well.

Pike River Mine disaster – never to be forgotten – never to happen again!

Memorial walk rocks 2
Pike29 Memorial Track Nikki Carroll