Royce Green doesn't remember how long it took him to reach the rockfall which crushed his father Bernard to death at Blackball on Friday. He does remember screaming.

"Words can't explain it. I can't tell you what it was like," the 19-year-old miner said of the horrific accident which killed his father, a former Kiwi league player and father of six.

"I was working ... (workmate) Graham came and told me, he said dad had gone missing ... I took off to where he was. It was 200-300m away. I ran. I was just flying. Tripping up, getting straight up again."

When he reached the spot, 800m underground where Bernard, 47, had been working, Royce found a wall of stone. "I was just yelling at it. His workmate was there - I said: 'Are you sure he's in there?' He gave me the nod. He was already digging at the stone."

The two men dug for as long as Royce could bear it. When he went to the surface for a break, he was not allowed to return.

Below ground, eight other miners continued the search, digging rock by rock until five hours later Bernard's body was found, two metres from the edge of the rockfall. The tunnel had caved in, crushing him.

His family has been told that Bernard's actions on Friday may have saved his workmate's life. The man, who did not want to be named, told the Green family Bernard had been washing coal down a sloped tunnel, just metres from him when the roof collapsed. When a rockfall is imminent, dust and tiny stones can fall through the roof netting first, giving miners a warning to escape. But this time, Bernard had time for just one word - 'Run'. His workmate made it out. Bernard didn't.

The fit, goodlooking league player was a legend in the small West Coast town of Rapahoe, just north of Greymouth. His wife Rose is a local policewoman, their five children grew up in the town and miner Bernard could often be seen on his three hour runs around the area.

Mining was in her husband's blood, an emotional Rose told the Herald on Sunday yesterday.

"He started at 15. He probably just followed his father into the mine. It was a bit of the old-school - you don't chop and change jobs, you just do it for life. He knew what he was doing. He was experienced."

Rose was at the station when the call came in that there'd been an accident at the mine. Her husband and son were working underground but she didn't rush to the site - she knew from other rescues that having family around can make the process difficult for rescuers. Her older son Tyrell, 26, had other ideas.

He drove straight to his mother and took her to the Roa mine where Royce was waiting outside.

"He had to sit outside and he knew," an emotional Rose said. "He saw the place and saw the fall, so he knew things weren't good."

The family gathered at home yesterday to recall their league-loving father who scored two tries for the Kiwis on their 1980 tour of Great Britain and France. Tyrell said his Dad, who was best man at his wedding, was "worshipped" in the Rapahoe community. Since the older children moved out of home - brothers Layne, 21, and Cole, 22, live in Australia, with Tyrell, 26, and only daughter Cherish, 18, in Christchurch - the family had hooked up a cheap phone deal and called home every day. Royce said: "Always, at the end of every conversation, it would be 'I love you'."

Cherish flew from Christchurch while the search for her father was on. "They said there was a chance he would have survived. I was just begging God that he was still alive. Then I saw his face in the clouds ... It's a bad dream. I just want to wake up and he'll be here," she sobbed.

"I'm his baby girl. He was just so warm and loving, it's not going to be the same."

Tyrell and Royce said "we have to be strong for our mother. She's lost her soulmate".

Rose described her husband, who she met as a teenager as "a devoted family man". "He was strong and fit, but he was gentle as well."

Rugby league was a big part of Green family life, first while Bernard was playing and then when his sons took to the field. Tyrell remembers him as the "hardest, fiercest competitor on the field". But when Rose joined the police it was Bernard who ran the home, looking after the children and cooking meals. Bernard's friend, Graeme Campbell, 54, had worked the coalmines with his mate for 30 years. Rockfalls are common, he said. "They're a part of mining. When you're dealing with nature you don't always know what it's going to throw at you."

Mine closed as accident investigated

The Roa Mine, near Blackball on the West Coast, where Bernard Green died on Friday is still closed.

Brent Francis, CEO of Roa Mining, said while the accident appears to be a natural occurrence, two investigations into whether it could have been prevented are underway.

"It's just a hell of a thing for the family and the workers to have to deal with," Francis said. Two Department of Labour inspectors spent yesterday at the mine, assessing the fallen rock and investigating whether the danger could have been detected earlier. Today a geotechnical engineer will be called in for further tests. A report on the accident should be released in the next week.

Mr Francis said the nine workers who were in the mine at the time will receive as much time off and counselling as is necessary.