It's been more than eight years since an underground explosion ripped through the Pike River coal mine on the South Island's West Coast. Twenty nine men never returned home. The families have battled authorities ever since to try and bring back their loved ones. In the next few weeks, mining experts will chip off the concrete seal to the mine's entrance, and start looking for any remains – and for forensic clues that may finally reveal just what happened in New Zealand's worst modern-day mining disaster. Kurt Bayer reports.
You can't beat the South Island's wild West Coast on a good day. Yet, somehow, it never quite feels right bathed in sunshine; like seeing a daffodil in August. It's more at home in the rain, drizzling like this morning. Misty wisps of white cloud drape green native bush, amplifying the bellbird's liquid notes. The hoof-clatter of scrambling wild goats, rushing of White Knight Stream, and thrum of nitrogen gas being pumped into the hillside. It's eerie down here, at the mouth of Pike River coal mine.
In front of an understated, crooked sign hanging on the mesh wire gate - "No entry – restricted area" – stands Kevin "Dinghy" Pattinson. He's spent many hours – days in fact – at this infamous mine's portal. When the underground explosion tore through Pike River at 3.44pm on Friday, November 19, 2010, Dinghy was working as, what would turn out to be, the last manager of Spring Creek mine – some 50km away.
As a senior member of the NZ Mines Rescue Service, whose great-grandfather John Pattinson died reading his Bible alongside 64 other men in the 1896 Brunner coal mine disaster, he rushed to the site, hoping to rescue his mates, guys who'd worked under him. He waited for two weeks.
"We never got in," says Dinghy, the fifth-generation miner who knew many of the men encased in the concrete tomb somewhere deep inside the rugged Paparoa Ranges.
He eventually got 300m with a Mines Rescue team, building a wall 170m in the drift, or mine's access tunnel, to safely seal it off before they left a note: "Colleagues and friends, we have commenced our journey to you. This has been the first step to bring you home to your loved ones. We will not rest and we will never give up. We will return. Kia kaha. From NZ Mines Rescue Service and our Australian brothers."
Just two years after Pike, the Spring Creek mine near Dunollie, north of Greymouth, shut down operations. For Dinghy, who left school at 16 to work underground, he knew nothing else. So, he packed up for New Zealand's largest gold mine, OceanaGold's operation, Macraes Mine in East Otago, where he spent five years as underground gold production manager. Meanwhile, many of Pike's grieving family members were fighting a long and bitter battle to try and recover the remains of the 29 fallen men, while becoming increasingly frustrated that nobody was being held to account for the tragedy.
But last year, and by now one of the country's most qualified miners, Dinghy finally got the chance to do what he couldn't eight years ago: try and recover his mates from Pike River. He's uniquely placed to lead the operation, as chief operating officer for the Pike River Recovery Agency - a stand-alone state department formed in November 2017 by the new coalition Government, with a $36 million budget and which is overseen by Minister for Pike River Re-entry Andrew Little. In 1992, Dinghy was working at Huntly West coal mine when a methane explosion happened. By a stroke of good fortune, no men were working in the area at the time, and no lives were lost. He left Solid Energy – the state-owned coal company where he worked off and on for 37 years – to take over the Mines Rescue station charged with recovering the mine. It would prove a perfect training ground for Pike – which was also filled with deadly and highly combustible methane.
"We will not rest and we will never give up. We will return. Kia kaha."
However, Dinghy says they approached the, albeit smaller-scale, Huntly job in a different way. While at Pike, they are purging the killer methane from the drift by pumping nitrogen through it and letting the methane gas out through strategically placed boreholes in the mountainside. In Huntly, the miners went back in wearing breathing apparatus. It took a year, moving in stages, clearing the mine and re-ventilating it, but they eventually got it back into production.
"I never ever thought I'd get to recover another mine in my career," says Dinghy, who last March took up the post at the Pike River Recovery Agency, with its headquarters based in Greymouth.
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Planning on the manned re-entry has been going on for over a year. And they're getting close to going back in. They won't say when, as Dinghy says, they're "event driven, not time driven", but it's likely to be a matter of weeks rather than months.
Unsurprisingly, as a born-and-bred Coaster and lifelong miner, Dinghy is a no-nonsense, practical-minded type of fellow – despite his penchant for loud shirts. And his approach to the mine re-entry – which could appear extremely complicated to non-miners or latte-sipping townies – sounds remarkably straightforward coming from him. Sure, the explanation is lengthy, but it's logical and safety-led. Step-by-step. Do this, then that, then the next thing. Done.
"Once all the boxes are ticked, then we'll be ready to go."
The first job was purging methane out of the drift. They fanned nitrogen underground through pipes, letting the lighter methane gases escape up through boreholes.
As Dinghy explains, "You can't put nitrogen in if you don't let the methane out, because it'll build up pressure and pop the concrete wall [at the portal]. It's like a balloon… if you keep blowing a balloon up, it'll pop."
By Christmas, they'd slashed methane levels from 96 per cent to around 2 per cent. Oxygen levels dropped to less than 1 per cent.
The purging went on, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, deeper into the drift. More boreholes were drilled down through the mountainside while pipes were dragged 4km through the steep, bushy slopes so they could start pumping nitrogen in from the other end of the drift.
Just before the first team goes in – no doubt under the nation's spotlight – they'll start pumping fresh air into the tunnel. They'll need no less than 19 per cent oxygen for the first team to work without breathing apparatus. It all prompts vague recollections of high school science class before a Google search: dry air contains 78.09 per cent nitrogen, 20.95 per cent oxygen, 0.93 per cent argon, 0.04 per cent carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases, including neon, helium, methane, krypton and hydrogen.
They haven't yet selected the first team to go in. But it'll be a three or four-person group, all experienced, qualified miners. None will have any previous connection to Pike River. Everyone, including the families, agrees that it's important the first to go back in are impartial and ultimately dispassionate professionals. One will be what's called a ticketed statutory official, while the other two will cover off ventilation and geotechnical details.
They'll drag forced oxygen blowers in with them, which will allow them to operate in 30-40m sections at a time. Their sole job, Dinghy says, is to do hazard assessments of each zone, looking for geotechnical and ventilation issues, any general mining hazards or roof faults.
Police, who last month confirmed that they won't send staff into the mine until it's been safely "fully recovered", have trained up the miners in an intense week-long forensic workshop. While moving through the tunnel, they'll scan for anything that may be of forensic interest to investigators. As the families say, it should be treated as an unexplored crime scene.
Once they've combed a 30-40m section, they'll walk back out and debrief the rest of the re-entry team, including police. They'll document and hand over any items of potential exhibits. Any hazards, like Pike River survivor Russell Smith's abandoned loader 1570m into the drift, and four robots sent into the mine after the explosion will be carefully extracted.
After everything has been cleared, a forensic team capped at six people – a strategically-located "refuge chamber" in the drift can only accommodate that many - will follow. Again, it'll include a statutory official – someone qualified in mining and holds a certificate of competency – along with a mines safety expert and forensic team whose job will be to gather any evidence, take photographs and take exhibits.
Once they're out, another debrief, and the first team of mining experts will go back in, advancing the forced air, water services, communications, and do the next section. Step-by-step, simple.
"Depending on what we find, we might do 200m-300m a day. But there'll be areas down the [end of the tunnel] that we will be days in one spot," Dinghy says.
It will take weeks. And they're not going into the actual mine workings itself. Once they get to the rockfall area, which came down in the explosion, they will stop. That's as far as the re-entry's official and much-chewed-over mandate says they can go.
And at the end of it all, it's possible they won't have found anything. No bodies, no conclusive evidence. Dinghy describes the chances of recovering the men as "very slim".
But at least they will have tried. And for the families, that's all they've ever asked.
Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the disaster, has been sitting in on meetings, conference calls, and training workshops over the last year as Pike River Family Reference Group (FRG) chairwoman.
"My overwhelming feeling from the team is that this is personal for them as well," she says. "They have lost some really good mates down there. They want to make sure they honour their mates' names by doing the right thing and getting it right. They all know they've only got one shot at this."
Robin Osborne was waiting at the pub for his Dad.
That Friday afternoon, the 15-year-old had just got his first pay packet and he wanted to shout his old man a beer.
Robin had got his parents' permission to leave school and take up a job on a neighbour's dairy farm. His first week had gone well.
Before he went to Ngahere Hotel with his mum, Anna, he left a note on the table.
"Dad, Mum and I are at the pub playing a game of pool. Come down and I'll shout you a beer."
While they were waiting, a family friend phoned Anna to ask: "Is Milt there?"
"No, he's not home from work yet, but he shouldn't be far away," she replied.
"Haven't you heard?" he said. "There's been an explosion at Pike."
Anna dropped her raspberry-and-coke glass and rushed to the mine site.
"We drove, hoping to see Milt's yellow van around every corner," she says.
Milton, 54, had left his Ngahere home - about 45 minutes' drive from the mine gates – early that day. The pressure was on to get production rolling, Anna says, with miners offered a $10,000 cash bonus if they met coal targets.
But Milton was a contractor, laying water pipes with his employees Terry Kitchen, 41, and 26-year-old Sam Mackie. They weren't in for any bonuses but were "slogging their guts out for their mates", Anna says.
Milton wasn't a coal miner or even a Coaster. He was a bushman, originally from the Coromandel, but moved down to the West Coast of the South Island to work bush gangs and fell in love with the place. An outdoors bloke's paradise.
He'd left bush work for a contracting firm which had been doing some work at Pike and Spring Creek mines. It was Milton's introduction to underground work. Someone suggested the hard grafter set up his own business and have a crack at mine work. He'd only been at it five months when Pike went off.
"Milt had worked so hard he was so friggin' exhausted," Anna recalls. "Each Friday, he had made a choice to have the day off for paperwork, maintenance, get his vehicles looked at, things like that. But because the squeeze was on, he went to work. I said he really needed to stay home and get the other stuff done. But he said, 'Hun, we need to get this done'. And I let him go. I still think I should've been that nagging wife that says, 'You're not friggin' going to work today, you need time off for your own sanity'. But I didn't."
The Osbornes were the first family to reach the mine site after the explosion. Details were scarce. After a while, some officials told Anna she would soon have to leave. She refused.
"I told them there was no way in hell I was leaving," she says. And in some way, she has never left.
Anna Osborne, along with other family members, including Bernie Monk whose son Michael died in the explosion, Sonya Rockhouse who lost son Ben, and others, have crusaded to get authorities to allow re-entry to the mine, to try and recover their men. Not only that, but they also believe someone needs to be held accountable for the mine, which a royal commission of inquiry concluded had "leadership, operational systems and cultural problems". It found Pike River Coal knew that the mine's atmosphere was in the explosive range for a number of days leading up to the deadly incident.
In the aftermath of the disaster, WorkSafe put together a case that would have brought 12 charges against Peter Whittall, who was the chief executive of Pike River Coal. The case was dropped after Whittall, who moved to Australia in 2014, agreed to pay $3.41m to the families of the men killed. But after relentless campaigning by Osborne and Rockhouse, New Zealand's highest jurisdiction, the Supreme Court later ruled that was unlawful, and effectively a payment to avoid prosecution.
"My husband went to work on Friday morning and I'm still waiting for him to return home," Anna Osborne says.
"I know there's always going to be people who'll say, 'For God's sake just let them lie, they're dead, they're all miners'. Well actually, I take exception to that. My husband wasn't a miner, he was a contractor. He hated that shithole, he really did. That place killed my husband and robbed my children of their father. And they will not determine where my husband lies if we get the opportunity to go in and recover. That's how strongly I feel about that."
No matter what the re-entry discovers, it won't be the end. The Family Reference Group, which has a mandate from 28 of the 29 families, along with the two survivors, Russell Smith and Daniel Rockhouse, still wants an independent inquiry into how the tragedy unfolded.
And they haven't given up hope of finding any evidence that could help any future prosecutions. Police have not ruled out manslaughter charges.
"We have had to fight every step of the way to get where we are today," Osborne says. "We had to go to the extreme of blockading the road, putting up crosses and effigies so that people driving through would see that this is an unexplored crime scene. They put a 30m concrete lid on our loved one's coffins without it being explored. You simply cannot kill 29 men and walk away from it. That's appalling."
The recovery team knows the country will be watching when they go back in. PRRA's boss ex-army boss Dave Gawn says it was raised during job interviews with miners wanting to get involved. "One of the comments we made was, 'You've got to understand that this is going to have intense public scrutiny and interest. Are you prepared for it?' And I don't think people are until they've been put in that position. It's not just a chapter in New Zealand's history, but more importantly, it's a chapter in the mining industry's history within New Zealand."
But the team is ready for all challenges. And they know what is at stake. Again, in the job interview process, the miners were asked their motivations. For a lot of them, Gawn says it was, "Unfinished business", and, "Those are my mates".