Coast mood slowly turns to anger

By Catherine Masters

Blast survivor Daniel Rockhouse  gets a hug after attending a briefing with police and company officials in Greymouth. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Blast survivor Daniel Rockhouse gets a hug after attending a briefing with police and company officials in Greymouth. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The sun smiled on Greymouth yesterday, but faces were grim and the sadness here is palpable.

West Coasters are stoic and they know mining and the problems posed in these particularly gassy Paparoa Range mines - and no one wants harm to come to the rescuers when they do go in.

But rumblings of discontent are emerging among some of the townsfolk we spoke to, that after four days rescuers still had not been into the Pike River coal mine to bring out the 29 men considered family by just about everyone in this tight-knit town of about 8000 people.

What chance do they still have four days on, people wondered.

"It wouldn't have happened in the old days," said a middle-aged man in blue overalls who works in refrigeration.

His father was in the Strongman mine, not far away, when it was rocked by an explosion in 1967, killing 19.

Many of them are buried at the town cemetery only streets away from the quiet main drag.

No one mucked around at Strongman, the man said, they went straight in to look for survivors.

"Everyone's feeling sad and sombre; we all want to hear the good news, you know."

A man in his street is trapped up at Pike River now, he said.

"Sad, sad, sad and I don't think they're coming out. You can't leave somebody underground for four days.

"In the old days the old miners would have said 'get in there'."

Even with all the technology and equipment of this era, look what was happening, he said.

"We're now into our fourth day.

"Today, the police are responsible for decisions about when to go in - in the old days, they weren't, he said.

"The miners just went in. They were their own people back then.

"My father was underground when it blew up. The mine blew up on this side and he was on this [the other] side."

His father told him how the air was sucked out and he helped pull the dead men out.

"And in come the other guys, 'cause they knew there was something wrong so they rushed in; there was no proper breathing gear back then.

"Not rescue teams, just the miners from outside. They knew there was something wrong, and came to have a look to see what was going on, to see if they could offer any help."

They were too late, the people that were dead were dead, he said, "but it's got to be better to know that than hold on, doesn't it?" Fingers crossed there could be air pockets, he said, but even then the outlook was grim.

"Four days under an air pocket, 29 people, big ask. Big ask."

His father never went back to the mines, he said, and this man never contemplated working them.

But mines pay well and are attractive to young people.

Even school leavers can make $60,000 to $70,000 - it's hard for some to resist. "You can buy a house, get a car, it's all good ... "

Beyond the Speights Ale House, across the meandering Grey River, a helicopter's rotors reverberate.

As the rescue preparations go up into the hills a group of rugged West Coast men, one with the handlebar moustache you see quite a bit around here, quietly drink beer outside the pub as the helicopter thumps away into the distance.

These men, like many locals, don't want to talk to the media.

But yes, says one, they all work in the mines.

"We're just waiting on our mates," he says.

They are gutted and, like everyone, desperately clinging to hope.

Even visitors from Christchurch sitting on a wall by the river, an older couple, turn out to be affected by the tragedy.

They are here to support a family member whose husband is one of the missing 29.

"It's agony; it's the waiting ...," the woman says.

A woman in her 60s walking down the street by the river said she felt "sick".

Her son works at the mine and finished his shift on Friday.

The next shift went in and the explosion happened.

He's in his 30s but he's still her boy, she said.

She won't be named but said she got a text from her other son who said "where's [her son] and he said there's been an explosion at the mine".

After the initial panic she was able to contact her son, but there are people she is good friends with whose children are in there.

It's agonising, she said, and people were getting angry.

"You can see on people's faces ... I saw them getting off the bus [after a visit to the site] and that sort of thing and how much anguish was there and you just ask why are they waiting - what are they waiting for?"

The men up there are her son's friends, she said.

"He's talking very, very little.

"He's bottling it all up and I wonder if he's thinking 'do I go back down there or do I look for another job'."

His mum certainly hopes he looks for another job.

"I didn't want him to go down there in the first place."

But he has a large mortgage and earns $80,000 in the mines.

It doesn't matter who you pick at random, everyone is affected either directly or indirectly.

Another woman in her early 50s sat down on a bench in the West Coast sun and said she was just horrified at what's happened.

She thought the mood was changing in town, moving from shock to a real restlessness that the rescuers had still not been into the mine.

"It's just time; people can only take so much; like they've heard nothing and they've been angry with the ones that are in charge that seem to be doing nothing.

"Even my son said why don't they get the army to get a big tank and just go down and get them. People are thinking like that, they've got robots and things, why don't they just do something?"

She says she thinks it's unlikely they're still alive.

She didn't think she knew anyone but she saw Lawrie Drew, father of a missing miner, on television and Drew is a good friend of her brother.

It hits home when you know someone, she said.

"You think of your own family and if you had a loved one down there ... all those things.

"It's horrible. In a way, even though it would be hard for the families, I think it would be better if they knew if they were dead or alive because the conditions down there would be awful."

She was going home to watch TV, she said. Like so many, she was finding it hard to concentrate on anything else but the disaster.

- NZ Herald

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