Mine blast survivor: 'I thought I was dead'

By Marcia Johnson

Daniel Rockhouse is comforted by his uncle after a media briefing this morning. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Daniel Rockhouse is comforted by his uncle after a media briefing this morning. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"I thought I was dead. All I could think about was seeing my wife and kids again."

Those were Daniel Rockhouse's final thoughts as he collapsed inside the smoky, suffocating darkness of the Pike River mine moments after a blast came out of nowhere and deadly carbon monoxide gas began to fill his lungs.

"I was thinking about my family and wanting to hold them again. I was saying, 'Please, please help me someone. God, I don't care. Anyone'."

A Pike River employee for two and a half years, the 24-year-old had just started his afternoon shift as a bolter on the ABM - a coal-cutting machine - and said the shift began like any other.

He had been at the coalface with the rest of his crew, but left on a loader to refuel it at a stub - a branch off the main roadway - about half way into the mine.

"I got out of my machine and all of a sudden I heard what seemed to be a shotgun blast but much, much louder and more powerful."

White light flashed down the main roadway, and the force of the explosion blew Daniel off his feet, smashing his head against the rock wall.

Initially, he thought his loader's engine had exploded.

"I got up and there was thick white smoke everywhere - worse than a fire. I knew straight away that it was carbon monoxide."

Daniel ripped his breathing apparatus from his belt as he had been trained, and began trying to suck in oxygen.

"That's when I started panicking because I was breathing too fast for it. I needed to calm down a bit, but at the time I thought it wasn't working."

In panic, Daniel began running away from the smoke into a dead-end area of the mine.

"Then I realised, 'If I stay here, I'm done for'. So I turned around back into the smoke. I couldn't see anything, and it was dead quiet."

Daniel took a deep breath - mostly of carbon monoxide - and ran into the main roadway of the mine.

"I yelled, 'Help, somebody help me!' But no one came. There was no one there."

His nose running and eyes watering uncontrollably, Daniel became disoriented and dizzy. He got a few metres into the roadway and collapsed.

"You know when your foot goes to sleep, but it was my whole body."

With three children and his wife six months pregnant, Daniel's thoughts were of his family.

"I was yelling, 'I want to see my wife again'. I lost consciousness for I don't know how long."

Just as it seemed all hope was lost, Daniel came to again.

"I started wiggling my fingers and toes. After a minute, I managed to stick my arm in the air, but it fell back down."

Daniel knew he had carbon monoxide poisoning, which causes a loss of mobility. "I lay down and closed my eyes and waited for that bright light. But then I managed to roll over on to my stomach and tried to get up. I screamed at myself, 'Daniel, get up! Get the f*** up!"'

With enormous effort, he dragged himself to his feet and staggered to a nearby compressed air line. He turned it on and was able to breathe in fresh air, regaining some strength.

Daniel followed pipes along the rock wall to a nearby phone. He spoke to mine manager Doug White, who told him to go to the fresh-air base near the mine portal.

"He said, 'It's okay mate, we're waiting for you. Hurry up'."

Feeling "drunk" from the carbon monoxide, on weak legs Daniel followed the pipe for another 200m and came across another loader.

"I found a man lying down, semi-conscious. I grabbed his hair and pulled his head back, and realised it was Russell Smith."

Daniel had known Russell since he began working at Pike. Nine months ago, Russell drove Daniel's wife, Sarah, to their wedding in his hotrod.

"He was away with the fairies. I tried to put his rescuer in his mouth three times, but he had no power in his lips to hold on. So I said, 'Bugger this. I'm gonna get you out of here'."

Daniel grabbed Russell under the armpits and began dragging him the 500m to the fresh-air base. Halfway there, he stopped and looked back.

"I waited for more lights coming my way, but nothing came. I did think about going down there, but I thought I wouldn't come back if I went down there."

As he approached the base, Daniel felt a spark of hope for the first time. Though he was exhausted, the air was clearer and he could breathe easier.

But when the two men reached the base, he found somebody had left the door open and it, too, was filled with poisonous gas. The only phone was not working.

"I said, 'You've got to be bloody kidding me!' I screamed and kicked the wooden seats. I came back out and said to Russell, 'F*** this, we're getting out of here'."

The two were able to breathe some fresh air from compressed air lines along the way. Eventually, Russell's condition improved and Daniel was able to help him to his feet.

"I put my arm around his shoulders and held on to him as hard as I could, and we hobbled for the next kilometre.

"All the way down I was saying to Russell, 'We're gonna make this, mate. Think about your wife, think about your kid - I know I am'."

About 300m from the entrance, they saw light.

"I've never felt so happy and so relieved," Daniel said.

Again he looked for lights behind him, but saw none.

"I said to Russell, 'I don't think anyone else is coming'."

After an agonising two-hour struggle, Daniel finally emerged from the mine with Russell.

Within a minute, the area was flooded with paramedics and mine staff, including Daniel's father Neville Rockhouse, who is Pike River's safety and training manager.

"Dad came over and I just broke down in tears," Daniel said. "He picked me up and carried me to the ambulance."

Daniel was immediately taken to Grey Hospital in Greymouth and treated for smoke and gas inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Then came the tearful reunion with his wife, Sarah.

"I just held her and said, 'Thank God'."

Sarah had spent an agonising three hours waiting to find out if Daniel was one of the two men who had escaped from the mine.

"It was the longest and worst three hours I've ever been through," she said, "not knowing if the father of my three children was coming back, not knowing if our unborn daughter will ever meet him."

She called the hospital three times before staff finally confirmed her husband was there.

"I was so relieved. I can't describe it. We went straight to the hospital. When I saw him, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"I couldn't have got through it without the support of wonderful family and neighbours."

Sarah said many of the men in the mine had children the same age as theirs.

"I am praying for the guys who are still down there, for their family and friends."

Sarah said it was a miracle her husband was still alive.

"Usually he would have been up at the face with all the others. Ten minutes earlier or later and he would have been there too."

Daniel believes Russell, who is recuperating at home, would still be lying in the mine had he not dragged him out.

But he says: "I'm not looking for gratitude. I was just doing what I thought any other miner would do for me."

Sarah said he did not yet fully comprehend that he had saved another man's life. "I am calling him a hero. I am really proud of him," she said.

Adding to Daniel's ordeal is that his younger brother Ben, 21, is one of the 29 miners still underground.

"That's my whole crew underground, including my brother," Daniel said. "If I could get them all out on my shoulder, I bloody would."

Friday was a black day for the Rockhouse family: Daniel and Ben's grandfather died in his sleep, and a close family friend in Australia also died.

"I was lying in the hospital bed when I heard about Granddad," Daniel said.

"I thought, 'What else could happen? I'm at the bottom of the barrel'."

Daniel said families had to be patient with the rescue attempt.

"It is very dangerous conditions. Even though my own brother and fellow workmates are down there, I understand why they are taking so long."

He said the site of the explosion had been incorrectly reported.

"They need to realise the size of the mine - from the portal to where the men will be is just over 3km, and the blast probably happened about 2.5km in."

He said the time since the explosion had been very traumatic for all of the families involved.

It was incorrectly reported that Daniel and Russell saw other men emerging from the mine behind them

But the reports arose after a firefighter saw reflectors in the mine, setting off a false alarm.

"This is the truth about what happened to me - I'm telling this story to set things straight," Daniel said.

For now, all the family can do is wait and hope that Ben and the other miners can be rescued safely.

"We are praying for my brother and everybody underground," Daniel said.

- NZ Herald

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