Greymouth funeral director Laurie Anisy was a trainee and just two weeks shy of his 17th birthday when he got word there had been an explosion at the Strongman Mine, with many dead.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the mine tragedy, and many hundreds of funerals later, Anisy - still a practising funeral director - says the events of January 19, 1967, will remain with him forever.

"I was a funeral director trainee and was working at Westland Funeral Services for Joe Pattinson and Jimmy Groom," Anisy recalled.

"The phone was ringing and I remember vividly Joe came out of the office not long after, saying he had received a call from the mayor, Barry Dallas. He told us there had been an explosion out at the Strongman mine and it doesn't sound very good - that was late Thursday morning. Late afternoon they started bringing the deceased to the hospital mortuary for identification.


"Soon after, Joe and the senior staff were bringing the deceased down to the premises and were preparing the bodies of the men and placing them in the caskets.

"That day is a day I will never forget but we just had to do it. I was flat out putting handles on as many caskets as I could - that was my role. I worked through to midnight and Joe, Jimmy and Archie King worked through to 3am."

The mass funeral after the Strongman mine disaster. Photo / New Zealand Herald Archives
The mass funeral after the Strongman mine disaster. Photo / New Zealand Herald Archives

Two bodies were put in caskets in the Tainui Street chapel while the others were taken to St Martins Hall, in Marlborough Street.

"We had to make up special stands. Every time I look at crosses they remind me of the crosses I made and put each of the men's names on, front and back. It's something that stays with me. I still don't know how they organised the funeral so quickly - how Joe got to go and see all the families in such a short time, but he did. Years on I still think about that often."

It poured with rain on the day of the funerals. There were five caskets at the Mass at St Patrick's Catholic Church at 10.30am and 10 caskets starting half an hour later at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Tainui Street, timed so that both services linked. The joint cortege, led by a fireman on a fire engine, then made its way slowly to the Karoro Lawn Cemetery.

Behind the hearse carrying the casket of Noel Prescott, who was laid to rest with his father James, was the fire engine.

"The other men were in caskets on the back of council trucks and the skies just opened up - it rained and rained - and there were truckloads of flowers," Anisy said.
Ninety pallbearers travelled by bus to the cemetery.

"I recall the precision timing for the burial of the men. As Jim (Groom) would walk up the ramp with six pallbearers, Joe (Pattinson) would be walking down, and there were people gathered in the rain, all (oblivious to) the wet conditions.

"The Strongman mine disaster is a time I will never forget," Anisy said.

"It touched everyone in the community. These men were key people in our community and everyone knew them."

- Greymouth Star