Pike survivor quits NZ for Aussie mine

By Jarrod Booker

Daniel Rockhouse finds it helps to talk about his dead mates. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Daniel Rockhouse finds it helps to talk about his dead mates. File photo / Mark Mitchell

In his last experience working in an underground coal mine in New Zealand, Daniel Rockhouse lost a brother, a bunch of good mates and colleagues - and almost his own life.

But the Pike River mine survivor is now mining in Australia - something he says he felt compelled to do. "I had to go back underground for myself. Just to prove to myself that I could still do it," Mr Rockhouse told the Herald.

"It's conquering the demons ... facing your fears. And I like doing it. I like going underground, as strange as that may sound.

"Before the blast, I enjoyed the job. Whether I continue being a miner forever - that's another question."

Mr Rockhouse, 25, was one of two workers who escaped the Pike River mine after a fierce explosion tore through it on November 19.

The blast knocked him off his feet and unconscious, but he was then able to help injured colleague Russell Smith out to safety.

But 29 of his colleagues, including his brother Ben, 21, did not make it out.

After a long layoff, and some counselling, Mr Rockhouse is now in Queensland at the North Goonyella coal mine, near Mackay.

He has been working underground for about a month.

"I was pretty nervous when I first went down. I thought I would freak out a little bit. But it was quite normal. It was just like any other day.

"There are times when I do get a bit of a fright, I guess you would call it. When smoke comes up off machines and things like that. When certain smells come past me ... it makes me think."

Mr Rockhouse is working on an underground loader, as he was on the day of the Pike River blast.

"Sometimes it's hard ... I think about my brother a lot when I'm down there. The mine I'm at, the conditions are quite similar.

"I'll never forget my mates [at Pike River]. I talk about them all the time. I find that if I talk about them, and I talk about my brother, it helps."

He works with a couple of contractors who used to work at Pike River - including one who greeted him when he got out of the mine after the November explosion. He finds having them around helps.

Shifting to Australia meant a fresh start. His wife, Sarah, and the four children they share - including a 4-month-old - are to to join him by Christmas "when I have a bit of money behind me".

"New Zealand will always be my home and I'll probably end up back there one day. But just coming over here does give you a bit of a break because it's so much bigger ... and even though I'm in a mining-orientated town, they don't really know who I am. I can just kind of keep a low profile."

Mines Rescue staff have this week re-entered the Pike River mine for the first time since November in a bid to stabilise it. Families of the dead men hope it is the first step towards getting the remains of their loved ones back.

"It's very important for me and my family," Mr Rockhouse said.

"It's never going to be fully over until we get [Ben] back. A lot of families have done memorials for their loved ones, but we have chosen not to. We have chosen to wait."

His father, Neville Rockhouse, said he was proud of his son for going back to doing what he loved. Having worked at the Pike River mine himself, Neville Rockhouse said he would be prepared to return to the industry as well.

He did not fear for his son, because he still believed the risks in mining could be managed.

Daniel Rockhouse expects he will be required to appear at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River tragedy, which begins its hearings on July 11, but is yet to get confirmation.

- NZ Herald

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