Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Tony Kokshoorn

On November 19, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn and his community will mark two years since 29 men perished in the Pike River mine disaster.

Greymouth Mayor Tony Kokshoorn. Photo / Doug Sherring
Greymouth Mayor Tony Kokshoorn. Photo / Doug Sherring

1. How are you changed by this experience?

When you have a tragedy of this magnitude you're so pleased you have family around you. You look at these families who lost people and they can't have them back. There is a lot of pain around that and some will never get over it. But you get more philosophical and I never hold a grudge. Life's too precious. I've realised I mustn't take myself too seriously. I've had another look at myself and I tend to be a bull at a gate. I've told myself to slow down.

2. What could you have done differently in the aftermath of the disaster? What do you wrestle with, in terms of your conscience?

I ask myself could I have done something that night to make a rescue attempt? I've never said this before but that night, after the first explosion, I was up there with Peter Whittall and (Tasman area police commander) Gary Knowles. It was strained between us. Gary Knowles pushed everyone out. They took over something they knew nothing about. I should've done more.

I should've pushed harder. Us Coasters, we knew we had a 24-hour opportunity to go in because there was no methane left. I walked past the Search and Rescue people and they said, "Tony, we don't give a stuff about the gas. We want to go in." There is a risk. Yes. But they were like soldiers in the trenches, not able to fight for their side. They trained for this. And they were denied the opportunity to do their jobs.

3. What was your reaction to the ruling to fine VLI Drilling $46,800?

I thought, that's a small fine for a big company. I just hope the company understands the importance of health and safety. There's this "she'll be right" attitude. It's a real Kiwi thing. It really says I'm putting something off that you should get right, from the start.

4. Have you, or anyone you know, questioned or reconsidered your views on mining since the disaster?

Everyone wants to resume mining. Coal runs through our veins. Mining can be safe and there doesn't have to be complacency as there was in Pike River. We want coalmines because we need it for our economy. Aucklanders have an appetite for steel. They like steel. You can't get steel without coal.

5. How does the Government's rhetoric match its deeds?

There is an offer on the table for recovery that if the mine is reoccupied, the Government will provide $10 million and the receivers will provide $5 million to re-enter the mine to get to where the men are. I presume that deal still lies on the table. Don Elder from Solid Energy has told me that they are having talks with possible buyers to partner them at Spring Creek and Pike - these are top underground miners who are talking about reoccupying the underground mine and including the open cast mine. Solid Energy has said this wouldn't happen for six years, but if a big partner comes in, it could be brought forward. If that happens, that $15 million from the Government and receivers would be used to reoccupy the old workings where those men lie.

6. If you could say one thing to Peter Whittall, what would it be?

I knew Peter well. I knew [former Pike boss] Gordon Ward too. I'd say, Peter, we know you didn't want the explosion but at the end of the day, you had a duty of care. It was his job in the mine to make sure it was safe. He now has to face the lonely road ahead. Twenty-nine people died on his watch. Peter is not a bad person, but he was the boss.

7. How do you personally contribute to the preservation of the environment?

I love our environment. I love the wildlife. I have a bach at Lake Brunner and I've planted 600 trees there. If someone had said to me 20 years ago, you'll be into gardening, I would've said they were crazy. I de-stress in the garden. I love the sea and the mountains. It's soothing. Mother Nature continues to warn us that she has the last say. It's rugged, it's harsh and it moulds the people who live here.

8. What is little known about West Coasters - apart from the way they are popularly described in the media?

It's a standing joke down here every time a Coaster is on the news, the media go to Blackball and they find someone with a beard and a tonne of coal up their drive. The truth is us Coasters love the wet. We love the rainforest and the birds. We're laid-back and trusting. I think the rest of New Zealand thinks we want to get in with our chainsaws and bulldozers and ruin everything.

9. When do you feel defeated?

I've never felt more defeated than right now. It's been a lousy run. I spent 10 years lobbying for hydro schemes and coal mining. In two years the whole lot seems to have unravelled. The Christchurch earthquakes and the Spring Creek mine - everything. Tourism has collapsed. There was the TranzAlpine story last week - that iconic rail journey that has brought so much from Christchurch to the Coast might shut. I feel as though I've been beaten by a mob. It's one thing to take a slap. But this is like being on the ground and someone keeps putting the boot in. I'm going through a bad time. But I'm the eternal optimist. It's like that Tina Turner song - you get knocked down but you get back up.

10. How will you mark November 19 - publicly and privately?

It'll be low key. The families have said they want it to be as private as possible. They'll take a bus up to the mine and just be with their thoughts. My wife, Lynne, and I will go to the memorial at Blackball and reflect. It's two years on, but it's still so raw, it's entrenched.

11. What's the best news you've had his week?

Lynne won a short story competition. It was a national competition run through the Nelson Romance Writers of NZ. That, and that Solid Energy will resume mining at Spring Creek in the future and that Immigration Minister Kate Wilkinson will intervene on visas for overseas miners. That was a breakthrough.

12. What do you believe in?

I believe in the afterlife. I have Christian values. I believe in family and the right for everyone to work. My mother who is 86 is a lifetime Labour Party member. I think motherhood is undervalued. It is the hardest job of all. My mother also taught me that you never tell a lie. And I never have. And that is someone who's sold cars for years. That seems impossible, but what goes around comes around.

- NZ Herald

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