My son died for nothing says Pike River mother

By Laura Mills

Sonya Rockhouse. Photo / The Press
Sonya Rockhouse. Photo / The Press

After 10 months, Pike River Mine families yesterday told their stories - of panicked phone calls, hopeful "welcome home daddy" cards, and 29 sons and husbands who "died for nothing".

Mothers and wives went first.

The royal commission of inquiry saw photographs of Francis Marden, 41, a contractor for Chris Yeats Builders, playing with his children. People in the public gallery wept and lawyers bowed their heads.

"I would like you to meet my husband," his wife Lauryn said. She is now raising her five children alone.

Sonya Rockhouse's son Ben, 21, was a contractor for Valley Longwall. Mrs Rockhouse was in Christchurch when the blast hit; she rang her son and ex-husband Neville, but got no answer. She began to panic.

On the way to the West Coast, she learned that Neville's father had died. She had to call Neville and give him more bad news.

"Seeing Daniel [her son] and Russell [Smith] in the ward, knowing there were another 29 men in the mine, was a rather eerie feeling," Mrs Rockhouse said.

Daniel smelled "dreadful" - a stench she would never forget.

She thought the people in charge knew from early on that the other men were dead.

She no longer slept properly, and thought about her "baby boy" Ben every day.

"And he died for nothing."

The men's bodies belonged to the families, she said. They went to work one morning, and did not come home, through no fault of their own.

Tara Kennedy lost her partner Terry Kitchin, a contractor, leaving behind three children.

About 8.30pm on November 19, Ms Kennedy drove to the remote mine site with two friends, in the dark, but did not know where to go. The radio was reporting that a base for families had been set up at the Moonlight Hall, but no lights were on.

She went to bed at 3am and was told to attend a meeting that morning.

The only other official call she received was just before Christmas, from Pike River Coal, asking her children's names because Prime Minister John Key wanted to send them a card. It never arrived.

She knew nothing about mining, and went home each day and told her children their dad would be home for their birthdays.

"I believed everything I was told by [Pike River chief executive] Peter Whittall and Superintendent [Gary] Knowles."

Her children made cards to welcome their father home.

Video footage of the explosion, filmed at the portal, did not look bad, but she said she later learned it had been edited. The families were not cross-examined, but the commission was told Mr Whittall firmly rejects this.

"What it has done to us as a family is indescribable ... them hating me and blaming me for letting their dad go and work in the mine."

Carol Rose, who lost her son, trainee miner Stuart Mudge, 31, was initially unsure if he was among the missing, until she found out his car was parked at the Cobden Bridge, where the work bus picked the men up. She had to get her son's ex-girlfriend to officially notify police that she was next of kin.

Mrs Rose said she began to believe Mr Whittall was "hiding something from us".

That first weekend, someone from Mines Rescue broke rank and told them the mine was a "fiery inferno".

It was then with disbelief, three days after the blast, that she heard Mr Whittall say the men could be at a fresh air base and would be hungry when they came out.

The cruel charade continued until the second explosion, she said.

Mr Knowles appeared out of his depth, and his superiors did not recognise or remedy the situation.

Lauryn Marden said conditions were terrible at the mine, but her husband had stayed because the money was good.

At the first families' meeting, she was told the men had air and water, and to have hope.

A number of families told the commission yesterday that they now accepted there had been no window of opportunity for rescue.

The inquiry is continuing.

- Greymouth Star

- NZ Herald

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