"1992 is not a year I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis [horrible year]."

Thus spoke Queen Elizabeth that year in her Christmas message to the Commonwealth, referring to a year in which Prince Charles' and Prince Andrew's marriages both ended in disaster and a fire devastated a large part of Windsor Castle.

If a couple of marriage breakdowns and a house fire are all it took to make an annus horribilis for the Royal Family, then 2010 can only described as an annus calamitosus [disastrous year] for the New Zealand family.

The earthquake which levelled much of Christchurch and other Canterbury towns and villages will cost something like $4 billion, but it did not cost a single life. By comparison with the Pike River mining disaster, the Canterbury calamity doesn't rate.

Houses, commercial buildings, roads, bridges, sewers and water mains can all be replaced or rebuilt; all it costs is time and money. I was astounded when I was in Christchurch a month or so ago, within weeks of the quake, to find that so much cleaning up and repair work had already been done.

And I got some idea of what Cantabrians put up with as thousands of aftershocks followed the big one when, sitting in an armchair in the lounge of my cousin's undamaged home, I was rumbled and rocked as I watched lights and pictures swing on the ceiling and the walls.

But the cost of the loss of 29 lives at Pike River is absolutely beyond computation, and utterly irreparable. These are husbands and fathers, sons and brothers, uncles and nephews, neighbours, colleagues and mates whose loss is incalculable and will be felt by literally hundreds of people for years to come.

It is comforting, yet a tad sad, that a tragedy of these proportions is necessary to make Kiwis think of others instead of themselves for a change, and to generate an outpouring of shared grief for the West Coast communities - and most other parts of the country as well.

Here in Rotorua, for instance, 17-year-old Roland Powell grew up with Joseph Dunbar, one of the lost miners. Struggling to hold back tears, Roland told the local newspaper that he considered Joseph to be more a brother than a friend. The pair met at North New Brighton School in Christchurch and quickly became inseparable. Both attended Aranui High School and did everything together.

Kevin Page, who spent 11 years in Runanga, leaving when he was 23, knew two of the dead miners, Peter O' Neill and Allan Dixon, and Marty Palmer, the father of another of the miners, Brendon Palmer.

And Brenda Taylor has shed a lot of tears over her nephew, Daniel Herk, another of the lost 29, who had been brought up by his grandmother but also lived with Mrs Taylor as a teenager for a few years.

It is a measure of the enormity of the Pike River disaster that it has resonated, too, around the world and brought messages of sympathy from leaders of many countries. I was particularly moved by the silence called at the beginning of the Ashes test match at the Gabba in Brisbane and by a similar tribute before the Welsh-All Black test at Cardiff Arms Park.

The rendition immediately after of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers), the Welsh national anthem, came close to reducing me to tears. How pedestrian our anthem sounded beside it.

There has also been a parallel outpouring of financial help from throughout the land for the families of the lost miners. At the time of writing, donations by individuals and companies had reached $3.5 million and ACC payments are predicted to be between $10 million and $20 million.

For all that that is a great deal of money - and no doubt more will come in - it will be of little importance right now to wives who waved their men off to work on that fateful day and by evening were widows; to children who have been suddenly, and for the little ones inexplicably, left without a dad; and to boys and girls and men and women left without one or all of their siblings.

What I know about coal mining I could write on one thumbnail, but I am nevertheless persuaded that at the end of the first decade of the 21st century such a disaster should never have happened.

However, that is a matter for the royal commission of inquiry, to be led by Justice Graham Panckhurst, and other investigations. Justice Panckhurst is an inspired choice for he was born in 1945 and grew up in Reefton, then a busy coal and goldmining town not far from the fatal mine.

But in the meantime the explosive catastrophe that is Pike River must for many seem to be a nightmare without end.

garth.george@hotmail.com