Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: In the honour of 29 good men

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Family members in front of the 29 tables representing the 29 miners entombed in the Pike River mine. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Family members in front of the 29 tables representing the 29 miners entombed in the Pike River mine. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was such a warm and pretty day, a perfect day; that's what made the whole service so special.

You knew the stars had collided or colluded or whatever it is we think stars do. Whatever it is, they came together and gave the Coasters a break.

The official Remembrance Service at the simple country racecourse with its old grandstand and its old wooden clubhouse to honour the Pike River 29, the dead men whose bodies remain entombed, and perhaps will be forever, deep within the rugged beauty of the Paparoa Range, will be forever remembered by every New Zealander who was there.

The day started cloudy, a little cool. One or two wondered about rain. Then, late morning at Greymouth, the cloud began to burn off, the sky began to blue and you knew we were going to be all right.

I was there to do the commentary for our special Newstalk ZB non-commercial broadcast from Omoto. It was an honour to be asked to do that one. You don't get much of a chance these days to do outside broadcasts in radio; not long, unbroken ones anyway.

And this one was a deep one. This one had to please people on the West Coast as well as people right around the country. Yes, it was an honour. I think that my wife was proud that they asked me to do it.

We got out to the racecourse nice and early. The technicians had set us up at the broadcasting site on the balcony of the racing club which gave us grand views across the entire scene, looking almost straight into the 1000-seat grandstand that soon filled up with the families of the dead.

I wondered at their grief. I wondered, for some reason, how much grief was up in that grandstand and if one could ever measure grief, and what it weighed.

The charming chairwoman of the racing club had spent days getting the place ready. She was there the morning of the service, I was told, scrubbing the toilets.

The crowd built steadily. People were quiet. No one got in anyone's face. People were respectful. I wondered it you could weigh respect. If you could, we would have had tonnes of it.

We were on the balcony next to National Radio's Wayne Mowat. I asked Wayne if he'd done any notes for me. Then I asked Peter Williams from TVNZ if he had my script. We had a nice, quiet laugh. We've all known one another for years. That was one of the lovely things about the day, the warmth.

About an hour before the service began I walked over to Wayne in the room behind us and saw his eyes were red. He'd been for a walk along the row of 29 tables, each one representing one of the 29 dead men. With Dallas Gurney, Newstalk's new boss, I went to have a look for myself. The grieving families had just finished arranging them as they wished.

Nothing brought the men to life, nothing made them as real, nothing made them people as much as those tables of tributes, with their vast assortment of personal effects on them. There were notes from wives and from children, from mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. One note said simply: "We love you, Boy".

A note taped to a small guitar said: "My son, my son, you are all the world to me."

Each table had a stone carved with the dead man's name and age. The ages of the fellows broke your heart - decent, normal young men gone in that inferno inside the mountain. We made our way slowly and quietly . Family members clung to one another. God, it was terrible and sad - and beautiful and human at the same time. The line of tables seemed never to end. Twenty-nine is a lot of people.

Twenty-nine of them, all dead, up there deep in the mountain, never to be seen again, perhaps, by those who loved them and depended on them. That line of tables was unforgettably moving, there in the beautiful sunshine with the green of the racecourse and the rain-forested mountains in the distance all around us and so many good men dead.

We went back to the broadcast site quite shaken. We began our broadcast of the service with me telling people I was going to shut up now for two minutes' silence. There were a few seconds of hush. Then a voice from the stage boomed out that we were going to start with two minutes of silence, would people please stand.

We'd forgotten to bring a clock. I counted on using my iPhone but didn't realise until just a few minutes before we started the iPhone doesn't give you seconds. Seconds are the most important part of radio, really, the frame everything is built around.

But Dallas got hold of the correct time and counted me down. So I think we were right and I think someone on the stage might have got it a little wrong but who cared? Men were dead and we were there to honour them. That is all that mattered. Time did not.

I'd seen Tony Kokshoorn, the Grey District Mayor, earlier. I gave him a big hug. Tony is a warm man, a gifted natural communicator. The Coast has been lucky to have Tony this past fortnight. Tony expresses the heart of the Coast perfectly. He is known by those us in broadcasting as Broadcasting Gold.

During the service, Tony told us of the history of mining on the coast and how nature can suddenly turn. He spoke of other mines that had broken hearts. He pointed far across the hazy mountains to Strongman, where 19 died in 1967. He pointed far into the distance, beyond the far end of the racecourse, to the Dobson and Brunner mines, both of which have taken lives.

Prime Minister John Key spoke. It was the best speech of his career. I understood from a quick word with him earlier that he had written it himself. His voice was strong and rang out across those tables of tears to the families in the grandstand, assuring them that four million New Zealanders were with them.

I must say also, Key's speech to the nation on the night of the second explosion - just five days after the first - was one of the highlights of the year. It was not brilliantly written, there was a cliche or two and he looked down at his notes a lot but it was all simple and real. The man was as shocked as the rest of us. He was just the way we wanted our Prime Minister to be at that moment, slightly uncertain, knocked about, just like the rest of us.

That is, of course, the key to his extraordinary connection with the people. He is just like the rest of us. That's what we think, anyway.

But the highlight of the day, the performance that stopped us all in our tracks - you could have heard a pin drop on the grass - was a poem written and read by a local woman, Helen Wilson. It was plain and simple and suddenly electric. She read it with decency and honesty and a plainness that matched the words perfectly.

I am someone who lives here, and I am no one in particular.

I am not a close relative though I am relatively close.

I live amongst you, work with you, pass you in the street.

And as luck would have it, I came home again.

I went to work on that Friday as you did.

That's all.

Her poem spoke of the normality of everyday human life - a normality we all take for granted, the unbearable lightness of being, I guess - and of the sad, numb paralysis of life on the Coast since the explosions and deaths at the Pike River Mine.

- NZ Herald

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