Pike River memorial: 'We want to bring them back'

By Laura Mills, Viv Logie -
Around 2,000 people attended the memorial service to honour the 29 men who lost their lives. Photo / Paul McBride
Around 2,000 people attended the memorial service to honour the 29 men who lost their lives. Photo / Paul McBride

Two thousand people stood shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm among a sea of black shirts and yellow ribbons as Greymouth came to a halt at 3.44pm today to remember its 29 dead from the Pike River Mine tragedy.

Families spokesman Bernie Monk, whose son Michael was among the dead, ended the memorial service at Rugby Park to a long, standing ovation. Symbolically, he sat amid the families, not on stage with the dignitaries, which included Prime Minister John Key and Governor-General Jerry Mataparae.

"We are going to fight until we get our guys out. At the mine today I looked in the portal and I saw my son's face ... I offered a prayer for him," Mr Monk said.

"We need to make sure this doesn't happen again."

One year on, the tone of the service was different, with a steely resolve to bring the bodies home to their families.

"We want to bring them back," said local kaumataua Ben Hutana in his mihi. "Every one of them," shouted a man from the several hundred families seated up front.

At the dedication of the memorial stone, former chief mines inspector Harry Bell vowed that he would not rest until their loved ones were brought home, drawing cheers and applause from the victims' families.

The memorial stone, gifted to the West Coast by Levin resident Ritchie Cornell, lists the mine victims, with the surrounding gardens adorned with 29 red and 29 white roses, West Coast colours.

The families had requested that Mr Bell speak on their behalf. He was brief and concise: "I'm honoured to have been asked by the families to be here and represent them. Read my lips - I promise whoever buys the mine that I will not rest until the bodies of the 29 men are brought out."

It was met with applause and cheers as some people punched the air.

The Prime Minster and Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn then stepped forward to unveil the monument, but after a brief whisper from Mr Key they invited Mr Bell to help them with the honours.

However, in contrast to the cheers for the retired mines inspector, comments from the MC, Grey District Council chief executive Paul Pretorius, that Mr Key had been "a pillar of strength for the families" was met with polite silence.

Anglican Archdeacon Tim Mora said it all in two words: "we're trapped". But Ged O'Connell from the miners' union was less subtle, saying there had been very little effort to recover the dead.

"It's time to mourn for the dead, fight for the living."

Amid the fighting talk, two families brought home the terrible grief of mothers who lost sons, and children without fathers.

"I remember the way it used to be; little happy baby bouncing on my knee," sang Tracey Cameron, to her stepson Ben Rockhouse, who lies with the other men 2.4km beneath the Paparoa Range.

And Alisha Osborne, 14, did her late father Milton proud, as she sung In the Arms of an Angel, accompanied by Carol Rose, who lost her son Stu.

Some in attendance wore black, others t-shirts bearing the faces of the men, and almost all wore the yellow ribbons, which have become a symbol of the determination since November 19, 2010, to retrieve the bodies for burial.

The Prime Minister read from Psalm 10, and the Governor-General spoke of the miners asleep in Mother Earth - "sleep, sleep, sleep".

And after the one-minute silence at the stroke of 3.44pm - the exact moment a year ago when the mine exploded into a nightmare - and with the West Coast sun still shining brightly, lumps of coal were placed symbolically into the deck of a vintage truck bearing the registration 'Our 29'.

As the bagpipes wailed their lament, the crowd dispersed, quietly, resolutely.

- GREYMOUTH STAR

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