Pike River Mine: Bring them home

Felicity Lamm

Most New Zealanders of a certain age will remember the Erebus Disaster. As now, there was also a great deal of discussion around whether or not the recovery of the victims of the 1979 Mt Erebus plane crash was either possible or safe for a recovery team. The National Government at the time was reluctant to send a recovery team but pressure from families and friends of the victims as well as the general public changed the Government’s position. A team, including the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Squad, was sent down to the Antarctic. The team recovered not only the victims’ remains but also valuable evidence that was used in subsequent inquiries, including the Royal Commission of Inquiry led by the Hon Justice Mahon. Talking about their experiences years later, those involved in the recovery said that the overwhelming reason for the recovery operation was to bring comfort and closure for the families and friends of the victims of that fatal plane cash.


Fast forward almost 40 years and we are having a similar debate as to whether or not the recovery of the victims of the 2010 Pike River Coal Mine disaster is logistically possible, financially feasible and whether or not it is safe for the recovery team, including the use of mechanical devices such as robots and drones. At the time of the explosion there was a change of shift and as such it is possible that some of the men died in the drift (the passageway leading into the mine) and never actually made it down the mine-proper. Like the 1979 Mt Erebus plane crash, there is a reluctance on behalf of the National Government to sanction a recovery team to be sent into the drift of the mine.


Solid Energy, a state owned enterprise (SOE) and the current owners of the Pike River Coal Mine, has made the decision to seal the mine at the point of entry as part of the conditions to transfer the mine back to the Department of Conservation. While the reason for Solid Energy to seal the mine is ostensibly over safety concerns as stated in their open letter in the New Zealand Herald, the families and friends of the 29 workers who were killed understand that once the mine is sealed, they will never recover the bodies of their loved ones or find out exactly why and under what conditions the mine exploded. One could also argue that the issue is not just one of safety, it is also financial as the price of coal is currently very low and is unlikely to increase any time soon. Paraphrasing one British mining expert, it all depends on how much you are willing to spend. Sealing the mine is much cheaper than trying to recover the bodies from the drift or complete a scene examination.


And it is not just the mine which is being sealed forever. It is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to the thousands of documents gathered by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Tragedy. The reason for the hundred year embargo is outlined in an email from the Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua: “Access restrictions of 100 years have been placed on submissions and evidence to protect personal privacy as well as to maintain implied and existing undertakings in relation to confidentiality”. Families and friends of the deceased have reason to feel thwarted in their attempt to understand what really happened at Pike River Mine. The Royal Commission answered a number but not all the questions. The Royal Commission did not determine the ‘immediate cause’ of the first explosion primarily because they were unable to enter the mine. And yet now when the drift to the mine can be accessed, the owners are seeking to seal it.


Coincidently there was an almost identical mine explosion in the United States that killed 29 miners in April 2010. And similar to the explosion at the Pike River Coal Mine, the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine was ignited from an unknown source with high methane levels being a contributing causal factor. But unlike at Pike River Coal Mine, the recovery operation was supported by the US government and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. All the bodies were recovered from the mine. And unlike at Pike River, the CEO of Massey Energy, which owned the mine at the time of the disaster, was as sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards and fined $US250,000.


Senior managers at Solid Energy have argued that it is not feasible to recover the deceased from the Pike River Coal Mine, as any recovery attempt would entail an unacceptable level of risk to the recovery team. These views, however, must be seen in the context of the recent introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) in which responsibility for health and safety includes not only senior managers but also board directors. It should be also noted that the new health and safety legislation was introduced to a large extent in response to the Pike River Mine tragedy. Since the stand-off between most of the families and friends of the deceased workers and Solid Energy in December 2015, there has been a new Prime Minister appointed, the Rt Hon Bill English. With an election looming in September, 2017, the current Prime Minister has stopped the sealing of the mine, but deferred any decision to re-enter it.


Yet governments all over the world routinely make strenuous efforts to recover the remains of the victims of disasters, wherever they may be. The universal creed to return the bodies to their families is embedded in human rights conventions of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. And the evidence is indisputable in that returning the bodies to their families is a key factor in the grieving process, provides a great deal comfort and a sense of closure. Professor Gerard Jacobs, Director of the University of South Dakota’s Disaster Mental Health Institute, notes  many instances when rescue and recovery teams place their own lives at risk as they try to return bodies. For example underwater recoveries, such as the crash of Flight 800 in 1996, presented extreme challenges to the recovery teams. Similarly, in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, thousands of personnel worked in difficult and dangerous conditions in an effort to recover the remains of those who died. At Pike River Mine there are also a number of experienced people who have publically volunteered to retrieve the bodies from the mine. Those who worked in these recovery efforts have repeatedly stated that although the work was extremely dangerous, it was worth it to help the families as they grieved.


Traumatic work-related deaths have, of course, a profound, long-lasting impact on families, friends, colleagues and communities. In a recent study undertaken by researchers at the Work and Health Research Team, University of Sydney, the findings are sobering. The researchers noted that serious illness, injury, or death at work has “cascading psychological, social, and economic effects on victims’ families and close friends”. The least we can do is to make their grieving process a little more bearable.



Felicity Lamm
About the author

Felicity Lamm

Associate Professor - Auckland University of Technology
Associate Professor Felicity Lamm is the Co-Director of the Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research at the Auckland University Technology (AUT). Dr. Lamm has been teaching and researching in the area of occupational health and safety (OHS) for over 25 years. She has written extensively on these subjects for New Zealand and overseas public and private sector organisations in areas such as regulating and complying with employment and OHS law in the small business sector and OHS issues in the agricultural, construction, forestry, mining, fishing and service sectors. Dr. Lamm has also been involved in a number of governmental inquiries into OHS, most recently the 2012 New Zealand Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety and the 2014 Worksafe Advisory Group of OHS Compliance and Worker Participation. As Co-Director of the Centre, she has led a number of collaborative research projects in which the Centre has been recognised for its research activities and received the AUT Vice Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence in Research.