The road out to Pike River coal mine had been blocked off since the first explosion on Friday afternoon. ' />
In the morning we'd been at the cordon.
The road out to Pike River coal mine had been blocked off since the first explosion on Friday afternoon.
A gritty miner, a big guy like a lot of these West Coast miners are, was standing there with police helping to let the rescue teams through and keep media out.
He'd been reduced to tears that morning, and that was before the announcement everyone was dead.
He'd been talking first about greenies, money, all sorts of things.
Pike River was good for the economy, he'd said. He thinks there's 60 million tonnes of coal in there and the company is allowed to take a third.
At today's prices, that's about $200 a tonne. "It's a lot of money."
He had no idea if the mine would be allowed to continue but he thought it should - despite the trapped men.
The mine was only little, he said, it was just getting started.
"I've been here since day one when they first started putting the access road in. It would be a shame to see it holed up. No matter what happens, life has to go on, you can't just stop."
The money from the mine filters down through to Greymouth and the other little towns and all the way to the supermarket and shops.
It pays mortgages. None of this would have happened if they'd allowed it to be an open cast mine, he'd said. Darn greenies.
Actually, he said he quite admired the ones at Stockton who sat out in all kinds of "shitty weather" to save snails.
This mine's in a national park, he said, and pointed to the distant bush-covered hills, about 10 kilometres as the crow flies from here.
That's Pike River and he said hills, not hill.
Pike River doesn't go down like most coal mines but snakes into several hills. It's a rabbit-warren in there and is about two and a half to three kilometres at its farthest from the entrance.
The terrain is steep and unforgiving and can be dangerous.
One of the rescue workers had an accident and had to be taken to Grey Hospital.
The miner said don't get him wrong, he loves the bush. But who goes up there?
You'd be lucky to get two tourists every 100 years.
It's miners who go up there and if the mine had been open cast these combustible gases would have simply dispersed into the atmosphere.
It was late Wednesday morning at that stage and it had been a quiet, sunny morning - grim but still with the increasingly desperate remnants of hope of some sort of happy ending.
To get to Pike River we'd driven past the old Brunner Mine. The whole area is a memorial now because it's the site of the 1896 explosion which killed 65 men, still New Zealand's worst mining disaster and in the same coal seam as Pike River.
You keep going through the little town of Taylorville and a slight detour takes you to Blackball - that's where the Blackball Hilton is; the infamous little pub which had to change its name because the Hilton hotel chain threatened to sue so now it's called Formerly the Blackball Hilton.
Blackball became known back in the early 1900s because of a three-month strike by miners fighting to get their lunch break lengthened from quarter of an hour to half an hour, and for a while such was the reputation of the tough roll-your-sleeves-up folk the New Zealand Communist Party HQ was relocated from Wellington.
The Formerly the Blackball Hilton has a book on the Brunner disaster propped on the piano and in it there are old black and white photos of the rows of coffins of some of the victims of 1896 about to be buried in a shared big grave not far away at the Stillwater cemetery.
It's sobering stuff. Tragedy is not new around here. In 1967 an explosion killed 19 miners at the Strongman mine, northeast of Greymouth. It could have been far worse - 240 men were down the mine that day - but a wet patch in the tunnel stopped the fire spreading.
In Blackball an old-timer propped his arm on the car window and gave leisurely instructions on how to get to Pike River.
Over the one-way bridge, past Moonlight, which is basically just a hall, and turn left.
He had shares in Pike River, the old timer said. Only the minimum amount, $3000. He'd been thinking of selling them a couple of weeks ago but not much point now.
"You wouldn't even get a box of matches let alone a packet of cigarettes for them." He hoped the mine would keep going too.
"There's a hell of a lot of coal in there, if they can get it out, which is a bloody big return for the country."
There's hard rock to get through, though, really hard.
Parts of it would be like drilling through concrete.
They had terrific safety standards, he had heard. The men weren't even allowed to wear a watch in the mine in case friction led to a spark.
At the cordon that morning, the gritty miner said he still had hope but that you simply couldn't go in and get them yet, it was unsafe.
"I could walk in there and I'd guarantee I'd never make it out."
It wasn't comforting being closer to the trapped men, he'd said, it's just something he had to deal with.
Then he'd suddenly said in a hurried voice: "The guy I play darts with for the last 25 years is stuck in there.
That's Milton Osborne, 54, a miner and local councillor who helped fight a hard but futile fight to keep little Ngahere School in Greymouth open when Labour was in government.
The gritty miner at the cordon was through talking. He choked up and spun away. So many tears...
A few hours later on Wednesday it was all over.
The announcement of a second explosion, bigger than the first had been made.
The relatives, expecting the welcome news that rescuers were finally going into the mine, instead found out all 29 men were likely dead.
Rare scenes of grief played out inside the council buildings where Pike River CEO Peter Whittall broke the terrible news, and himself broke down.
It had been a hell of a week for him, fronting to the families every day then the hordes of local and international media which had descended en masse.
The families were traumatised.
All those days of being told about bore holes being drilled to collect gas samples, the saga of robots arriving to go in the mine, the first breaking down, then replacements flown in, and always that hope, that somehow the men had found an air pocket, a safe place to wait until the mine was safe enough for rescuers to go in.
But along with the hope, police had also kept repeating the mine was too dangerous; that they would go in the minute a window opened where conditions meant the rescuers would come out alive.
It never happened. In reality, perhaps there never really was that much hope.
As soon as we arrived on Saturday the Herald received tips a fire was still raging in the mine and that it would be very unlikely there would be survivors from such a huge methane blast.
As the relatives trailed out on Wednesday afternoon after the shocking news, some were so distressed they collapsed or had to be helped to cars or the waiting ambulance.
Some of those supporting them were livid and yelled obscenities at the media surrounding the car park who were being kept at bay by security guards.
But this had been such a shocking and dramatic conclusion to the sixth day of a roller-coaster ride of agonising waiting and clinging to hope.
That hope had taken a sudden decline on the Tuesday with the revelation a video had existed all along which indicated how long and violent the first blast had been.
Security camera footage at the mine's entrance showed dust being blown out of the portal for almost a minute.
The second explosion, police said, was shorter but just as intense, if not more so. It was now unrealistic to expect any survivors.
On that highly-charged day, Laurie Drew, father of Zen, 21, vented his anger.
Those at the top at Pike River needed to be held accountable, he said.
"In today's technology world mines are supposed to be advanced, have all these sensors, technology readings, video cameras - why weren't we shown that video footage first thing Saturday so we didn't anguish quite as much?"
The second explosion had given the company what it wanted, he said, because now no one could come out and say what happened.
Earlier, a miner from Pike River had said an ignition could have been caused by machinery - or simply by a piece of stone falling out of the roof.
The stone drops down like flint, he said, but that's why the roof and walls have mesh, to stop stones dropping down.
The man told how inside the mine there is all sorts of machinery.
Some men are drivers taking supplies in and out - roof bolts, chemicals, mesh and rubbish.
There are machines which cut the coal out and machines which bore into the coal.
A woman had said how hard it was to be the wife of a miner.
You're always hoping they will come home safe, she said.
"It's shocking, it is. But that's why, honestly, you take out insurance."
You can read about past mining tragedies at the old house on the edge of the main shops, which is now a museum.
There you can see a model of the surrounding hills and the mines dotted all over.
Mining on the West Coast is literally part of the landscape.
You'll see old black and white images of mining men with picks and shovels and blackened faces standing still for a photo and see photos of horses underground pulling carts behind them.
Other blasts include the Dobson mine in 1926 where nine men were killed.
That blast was like an earthquake and woke people all along Brunner Valley.
A commission of inquiry found an oil safety lamp left in the mine workings may have overheated because of accumulated gases, or that a body of gas at one of the faces in the dip workings could have been ignited by a blown shot, defective lamp or naked flames.
The father of James Richards, 43, single, had been killed in the Brunner disaster 30 years previously.
Brunner was believed to have been caused by floods filling the workings of the adjourning Coal Pit Heath Mine and forcing an accumulation of gas into the Brunner workings.
Thirty seven women were widowed and 186 children were left fatherless when those 65 men died.
THE MORNING after the second blast in Greymouth, the town appeared strangely normal at first glance. Shops and cafes were open but every now and then you'd see people hug in the street, or walk by red-eyed.
Repercussions from this disaster will echo for a long time, not just from the dissections over safety and the many unanswered questions about how such a terrible event could happen in this day and age.
The repercussions will reverberate for the rest of the lives of the devastated family members, some of them who have lost not just their dads and husbands, brothers and sons, but an awful lot of their friends as well - drinking buddies, mates from darts.
Tourists aside, it's probably fair to say no one in Greymouth and the surrounding mining towns is unaffected, from the stunned students at the local Greymouth Polytech who had to sit exams earlier in the week when there was still hope, to the locals drinking late in the bars when there was no longer hope and letting loose dancing but always near to tears.
The owner of the motel where we stayed said she knew eight or nine of the men. "The carpet you're standing on was laid by Blair Sims."
He was such a nice young fella, she said. "I only ever saw a smile on his face, nice-looking boy."
He had a young family, two little girls, she said.
He laid all the carpet at the motel then told her this was the last carpet he'd be laying because he was going to the mine for better pay.
"It doesn't feel like it's your town until you see Greymouth on television," the motel owner said. "It's a dream, it's not real."