Pike river mine disaster: families fight to stop their dead being sealed away forever

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Relatives of some of the 29 men who died in the New Zealand pit are guarding its entrance to prevent the mines owner blocking it with concrete

It has just gone six in the morning when Bernie Monk emerges through the cloying mist of Grey valley and is handed a mug of steaming coffee. The eyes of two dozen protesters turn to the burly publican as he swats sandflies from his face and begins to speak.

Ive got a good plan, he tells the group gathered in a semi-circle, wrapped up in beanies and khaki oilskins against a southerly battering New Zealands west coast. A plan that will stop any bastards getting up there again.

Monks plan involves finally retrieving the body of his son Michael and those of 28 other men who lie somewhere beyond the 1,800-metre mark inside the entrance to the Pike river mine. The term bastards refers to the mines owner, which intends to seal the site with concrete, dashing any hopes the fallen miners will ever be laid to rest.

The name Pike river provokes a communal shudder in New Zealand striking at the heart of the working-class west coast, where jobs are scarce, homes are buffeted by the meeting of coastal and alpine climates, and the population has long been in steady decline.

For four terrible days after a devastating explosion on 19 November 2010, families clung to hope that 29 miners who were working the pit that day had survived. But a buildup of poisonous gasses in the mine prevented rescuers from entering.

NZ map

Public pressure to launch an underground rescue mission was intense, spurred by the astonishing rescue of 33 Chilean miners a few months before. But from that very first afternoon, many families say they felt railroaded by misinformation and stalling tactics by the government and then owner Pike River Coal, which sold the mine to the state-owned Solid Energy in 2012.

An inquest concluded there never was any hope of rescuing the men because they would have died immediately or soon after the first explosion, which was caused by excess methane gas.

A 2012 royal commission into the calamity found Pike River Coal guilty of operating an unsafe mine, and failing to heed numerous warnings from employees. It detailed a litany of oversights and malfunctions including inadequate ventilation, faulty mine design and issues at management level it was a new mine with old-fashioned problems, poised for disaster to strike.

The commission also charged the government with poor oversight in 2010 there were only two mine inspectors for the whole country.

In the years since the disaster many of the families of the 29 have see-sawed between stages of grief. But one thing has kept them almost entirely united their commitment to bringing their husbands, fathers and sons home.

That commitment now comes in the form of a human blockade on the road leading to Pike river day 29 and counting.

At half-past five each morning protesters gather in front of a steel farm gate hung with flowers and hand-painted signs, and sealed with padlocks and chains.

Twenty-seven of the 29 miners killed inside the coalmine. Photograph: Reuters

Their modest barrier inspired by Mahatma Ghandis teachings on peaceful resistance is halfway between the mines gaping mouth and the memorial to their lost men, a monument of compromise, when there are still no bodies for their families to farewell.

Not all of the families support the protesters, and some want the remains of their men to be left in peace. And although Pike river is ingrained in the Kiwi psyche as one of the most tragic events of recent decades, fatigue that the story is still not resolved has steadily grown, with some media commentators saying it is time the families moved on.

However, the frustration of these protesters peaked this week with the surprise resignation of John Key the same prime minister who eyeballed Monk in Greymouth six years ago and promised to bring the boys home.

Dave Corson, listening to Monks rousing morning address as dawn breaks over the gorge, says: Were behind you.

Were all in this together! shouts his wife, Marilyn. Would anyone like a cup of tea? she adds.

Solid Energy didnt show up for two days after Key announced his departure, but the protesters stood guard nonetheless, numbering in their hundreds since action started on 12 November.

Volunteer sentries run 24/7 surveillance from numerous posts; sleeping in their cars in case trucks try to slip by in the middle of the night.

On Thursday, protesters allowed four Solid Energy vehicles access to Pike to check on gas levels but any attempts to bring equipment or materials to begin work have been met with a staunch refusal to budge. The group have already defeated one contractor, with unconfirmed reports that another is considering withdrawing.

Allied Concrete, which had the contract to provide concrete to Solid Energy to seal the mine, pulled out of the deal in late November, saying it could not reconcile its work with the emotional toll it would take on the families. It was a huge win for the group.

This week Solid Energy took out a full-page advertisement in the New Zealand Herald stating its intention to go ahead with the sealing of the mine and reiterating its reasons: the mine was too dangerous to enter, and further lives would be put at risk.

The Pike river mine memorial, erected on land donated by a local farmer. Photograph: Eleanor Ainge Roy for the Guardian

While we have deep sympathy for the position of the families, the directors decision is entirely motivated by our responsibility for the safety of the site and any person entering the mine, read the open letter from Solid Energy.

As we said in 2014, any further loss of life in this mine is unacceptable and any possibility of other families having to go through what the Pike families have suffered is not a risk we believe should be taken.

This position enrages the protesters because their experts say the opposite that the mine is stable enough to re-enter and that mine recovery professionals should be allowed in to retrieve the bodies.

Dozens of mine recovery experts from around New Zealand and the world have volunteered their services to retrieve the bodies. The protesters refer to the mine as an active crime scene.

Perched 20 metres above the blockade on a weed-strangled hill, stands sentry Fred Heine. He spends his days peeling the grey-green countryside for the heavy police escort which would signal an attempt by Solid Energy to get past the blockade.

In all these long years, no one seems to be willing to listen to the families, says Heine. Ive think theyre beyond frustrated that people keep telling them to move on but there is still no closure this is the only way they can see to force the issue.

Monk and protest leaders have clearly stated their demands a sitdown with the government and Solid Energy, so the experts can work out their differing opinions, and the families can plead with the prime minister to honour his promise.

We would never send someone into the mine if it wasnt safe, the last thing Pike families want is more deaths in that place, says Tommy Daly, a key protest organiser who wears a blue Stand with Pike T-shirt every day, and has the virile energy of an unbroken colt

Pike river camp mother Marilyn Corson in front of the blockade. Photograph: Eleanor Ainge Roy for the Guardian

Weve had all these promises over the years that the government would get the men out its never happened. Weve been shafted. But I made a promise to someone that I wouldnt give up and I havent forgotten that.

As the rain increases in intensity small groups of protesters cluster around a camping picnic table, laid with steamed pink trout and lemon cake.

Monk wont reveal the details of his plan yet but everyone is whispering theories as they sip on mugs of billy tea. Felling trees to block the gorge perhaps, erecting a wall out of Pike river stones?

No one is going through, and this is the only way through, growls Monk to the crew, raising morale before he prepares to drive an hour south to man his pub at Peroa.

And when we start standing up, we are the biggest sons of bitches under the sun.

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