Risking living to find dead

November 19, 2018

The decision to attempt to re-enter the Pike River mine drift has been widely praised.

The families deserve justice, the families deserve closure, and the families want their men back are among the reasons for the praise.

I can’t argue with the need for justice.

Twenty nine men lost their lives at work and that’s unjust but I doubt that any evidence that could result in justice for them could be found in the drift.

The families deserve closure.

There is no closure with grief, you just learn to live with it. Had Labour and NZ First not played politics by disagreeing with the previous government’s decision that the risks of re-entry were too great, the families would have been learning to live with it for years instead of stuck in limbo, pinning their hopes on re-entry.

They have been strung along by politicians and some media. If there’s no evidence and little if anything to be found of anyone whose life was lost, they will be further still from learning to live with their grief and there will be more agitation to go beyond the drift.

The families want their men back.

Some do, but not all. Marion Curtin, the mother of one victims says the attempt to re-enter is disgraceful.

Her son, Richard Holling, never came home after the November 2010 tragedy, but she wanted it to stay that way.

Some people might assume that all 29 affected families considered yesterday’s news as a “victory,” she said, but she was one of the silent many who disagreed.

Almost all reports since the disaster make it appear as if all the families support the re-entry. The ‘silent many’ are rarely mentioned.

She said the plan was an “appalling” waste of $36 million.

“I’m just so disappointed. I couldn’t believe that cabinet would sign this off,” she said.

Ms Curtin was deeply grateful for the money already spent at the site, but at the same time wondered how others can’t see “all the other important things in the country that the money could be spent on”.

Especially given the lack of certainty, she said, with nobody able to tell her exactly what the mine recovery experts would be looking for.

“I see it as sacrilege, really. To go in fossicking around for remains… to go in just to see what they find – I think it’s just disgraceful,” she said.

Ms Curtin loathed the fact it had become so political. She said the months leading up to last year’s election were especially challenging. “Some people liked that… the politicians climbing on board. I certainly didn’t. That was my son’s death they were playing with.” she said. . . 

It’s also playing with the lives of the people who will re-enter the mine.

Stacey Kirk writes of the high risks for re-entry:

But the biggest concern might be that the word “safety” appears to be becoming more subjective by the day.

“Safety is paramount” Little repeated ad nauseum. 

It’s hard to understand that if that were the case, why more people would be sent down there.

A mine filled with explosive gases, no matter how much are pumped out, surrounded by rock of variable stability and the simple fact it’s a coal mine – which in the best of situations are hazardous sites – there is no way it’s objectively safe.

The previous Government decided the danger threshold was more than it could stomach, on the back of technical advice. This Government has decided it’s comfortable with whatever risk is still there, on the basis of a different set of technical advice.

Without a very specific type of engineering degree, the differences between the two sets of advice are unlikely to be translatable to the wider public. Still, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the venture is far from risk-free. It’s debatable, but perhaps at least partially irrelevant, whether $30m dedicated to 29 families is a worthwhile cost.

But it’s without question that the risk of one more life, definitely isn’t.  

No employer should ask anyone to undertake the work and no politician should ask it of anyone either.

Health and Safety laws were changed as a result of the Pike River disaster and any Person in Charge of a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) is now liable if a life is lost or someone injured.

Nothing can be done to make no risk at all for anyone going into the drift and it makes it worse that one of the motivations for putting lives at risk is to bring back bodies, or what remains of them.

The living should never be asked to put their lives at risk to rescue the dead.


The other families

October 1, 2018

The costs of the Pike River recovery agency are high and rising:

Pike River Recovery Agency has spent $2.5 million in its first financial year, including nine staff paid more than $100,000 a year.

And its boss warns that re-entering the West Coast coal mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that cost 29 lives, might cost millions of dollars more than its original $23 million budget, as the complexities of the operation become apparent. . .

And what of the human cost, not just for the families who always feature in the news, the ones who want the mine re-entered; what of the other families who don’t?

This letter to the editor of The Listener is from one of the other mothers:

My son died in the PIke River mine accident and I couldn’t agree more with the views of Heather Levack (Letter July 28). Not all the 29 families seek recovery of any remains. I am vehemently opposed to it for many reasons, cost being one of them.

My understanding is  the $23 million budget quoted is for only for re-entering the drift and not the actual mine where it is presumed any remains are.

Millions of dollars have already been spent. Any more should go on the living – perhaps on health services in Westland and elsewhere, or on education or on low-cost housing.

I was disgusted but not surprised when Pike River was used for politically before the last election, the present situation being the outcome .

Lack of sensitivity and compassion is distressing to most who are affected by these tragedies. . .

Losing a child in tragic circumstances and living with and accepting that loss is not alleviated by the unwelcome intrusion of those who wish to ‘use’ those circumstances . . My son’s death for me is neither about political grandstanding nor entertainment – Marion Curtin. 

Michael Wright interviewed this mother for a story on bereaved  parents who want to let the past be:

When it got really bad, Marion Curtin would turn on Concert FM. Any sort of music worked, really, but Curtin was a devout Radio New Zealand listener, so the public broadcaster was her first choice. It wasn’t the music she was interested in so much, though. Over on RNZ National the words ‘Pike River’ could be uttered at any moment. On Concert FM, you only needed to avoid the news bulletins.

Curtin, from Christchurch, has spent almost eight years in quiet opposition to what the public could be forgiven for mistaking was the united front of the Pike River families. For most of that time, a group of victims’ family members have fought for accountability over the tragedy and lobbied governments to re-enter the mine to recover the bodies of the 29 who died there, including Curtin’s son, Richard Holling​.

Their efforts have commanded considerable media coverage. This month, stories have focused on the efforts of experts in reviewing options for possible re-entry into the mine drift.

It’s not hard to find stories in favour of re-entry. The Listener letter, this story, and a long ago email read on breakfast TV are the only ones I’d come across before this which give the view of the other parents, those who oppose the idea of attempting re-entry.

Curtin finds the idea abhorrent.

“I don’t understand [the pro-re-entry] view. To me it’s an irrational one. Why they think there are bodies to bring out just beggars belief as far as I’m concerned. The amount of money that’s been spent I think is disgusting. To me it’s just sacrilege. It’s like grave-robbing. It’s awful.”

Mostly, Curtin has kept her counsel on this. Occasionally she has spoken to the media, or written letters to the editor of the Press . But maintaining a public opposition to a prevailing view isn’t easy.

“It’s very hard to go against what is perceived as the majority,” she said. “Because I would much rather not be doing it. I do it to stop an inaccurate picture being painted of ‘the families’. It’s very seldom that someone speaks up and says to them ‘enough’s enough’.”

Curtin has been resolute throughout that the explosion was an accident and retribution against Pike River bosses was pointless. As soon as the re-entry question was raised, she was against that too. Though she received some “positive” feedback when she did speak publicly, she isn’t in contact with any other like-minded bereaved families. Her two daughters and wider family share her view. . .

It was some comfort after the deaths of our two sons to know that no-one was at fault.

Those grieving the loss of the men killed in Pike River don’t have that comfort and the strong wish of some of them to find answers is understandable.

But at what cost and not just in dollar terms?

The re-entry has been politicised by Labour and New Zealand First which is despicable.

Would they have done so if media coverage had made it clear that the campaign for re-entry was not supported by all the families?

Would knowing that the on-going publicity makes matters worse for some of the families have influenced public opinion? Would that in turn have stopped the politicalisation of the tragedy?

All the re-entry planning has done is prolong the agony for all the families – those wanting to let their dead be and those wanting to find answers.

But what if someone gets up the drift and finds nothing? Will the pressure then be to enter the mine itself?

What if someone dies in the attempt?

The living should never be put at risk to recover the dead.

Had there been more balanced coverage, the public support of the agitating families would have been more muted and that might, just might, have stopped the politically motivated and misguided support for a re-entry attempt.


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