New Zealander of the Year Finalist: Tony Kokshoorn

By Catherine Masters

Every day this week in news, business and sport we feature the finalists for the Herald New Zealander of the Year. Top honours will appear in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.

Tony Kokshoorn. Photo / Doug Sherring
Tony Kokshoorn. Photo / Doug Sherring

There were times when Tony Kokshoorn told how it was like no other officials would.

During the Pike River coal mine tragedy, when the first robot broke down in the mine because it wasn't waterproof, he summed up the despair and anger in Greymouth and surrounds: "My first thoughts were, why didn't it have a bit of Glad Wrap over it?," he said.

It was for refreshingly frank comments like this that the mayor of Grey District is now a household name. Kokshoorn wore his heart on his sleeve and talked plain West Coaster brogue.

The used-car salesman, who part-owns the Greymouth Car Centre, proved during the crisis why, only a couple of months earlier, he had been returned to the mayoral office unopposed (he's in his third term as mayor).

He might pronounce nothing as "nothink" but he says what he means.

After that first explosion in the mine on the Friday, Kokshoorn was blunt, tireless and could not be muzzled.

By the Sunday he was critical of police for withholding the names of the miners: "I'm all for disclosure of the names to avoid speculation. Everyone knows locally - it's not a secret and everyone could find out if they wanted to."

Later that day in an emotional encounter with local man Gerry Morris after a packed press conference he admitted he had heard often over the past two to three years that the mine was unsafe, that there was "far too much gas, there's going to be a disaster here one day".

There was no doubt in his mind there was a "freight-train coming of allegations on the company on a safety issue".

As Kokshoorn appeared on on TV sets in New Zealand and Australia, he didn't back off.

When the robot broke down, he appealed on Australian television to Prime Minister Julia Gillard to "just please put it [the replacement robot] on an Air Force jet and bring it over to us".

When the second explosion rocked the mine and ended the families hope of the men being alive, he was there too, describing the scenes: "They were screaming at them [the company]. It was absolute despair ... people were openly weeping everywhere.

"People shouted out in anger, they are sickened by the whole thing. A lot of them felt misled."

It wasn't that long ago Kokshoorn was offering the people of Christchurch a hand after the earthquake, inviting them for a stay on the West Coast.

To his own people, the grieving families of the dead, he had these words of comfort at the memorial: "You have a way to go on this long and winding road.

"But I promise, as you walk, we will match you stride-for-stride. Your West Coast family is standing by your side."

- NZ Herald

We would like to hear from you. Who do you think is a worthy New Zealander of the Year for 2010? Email us at newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz

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