It has been a decade since an explosion at New Zealand’s Pike River mine killed 29 miners, and for the family left behind the wounds remain raw and open.
“Sometimes it feels like lifetimes and other times it feels like it was yesterday,” Sonya Rockhouse, who lost her son in the explosion, told RNZ. “The only thing I have noticed since time has gone on is that I am starting to forget what my son’s voice sounded like – which is disconcerting.”
On Thursday afternoon relatives will gather at the memorial site down the road from the mine, and at 3.44pm they will hold a minute’s silence at the mouth of the mine. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, will lead tributes in Wellington, with flags at half mast. The gathering will be small – for many families the mouth of the mine is a traumatising place.
The name Pike River provokes a communal shudder in New Zealand – striking at the heart of the west coast where jobs are scarce, homes are buffeted by the meeting of coastal and alpine climates, and population numbers have long been in steady decline.
For four terrible days after an 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 gases prevented rescuers entering.
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 said they felt “railroaded” by misinformation and stalling tactics by the government, then the 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 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, waiting 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 is their commitment to bringing their husbands, fathers and sons home.
In 2017 the Labour-led government under Ardern announced a specialist team would re-enter the mine to look for evidence and bodies.
Although setbacks have been frequent, miners in the recovery effort have reached the main access tunnel 2,146 metres inside.
The next stage is for miners to break the foam seal blocking the shaft. Lingering gases mean they will be wearing breathing apparatus. They hope by Christmas to reach an area of the tunnel where the roof has collapsed.
The engineering effort is complex with a constant flow of nitrogen into the mine to safeguard against further explosion. Dinghy Pattinson, the chief operating officer for the recovery mission, told AAP: “We’ve had the plant running since October 2018 and pumped 10m cubic metres of nitrogen in there.”
Pattinson said he believed the operation should be seen as a success regardless of what happens. “There were a lot of people out there who said this job should not be done, it’s not safe to do. We’ve proven them wrong.”
For the families, bringing the miners home remains paramount. Most have yet to hold funerals for their loved ones, or choose a final resting place.
“There’s evidence to be gathered from there, hopefully, some body remains and they’re doing it slow, slowly, slowly because they have to – it has to be done correctly,” Rockhouse told morning television. “We want this investigation to be the best that it can be – we want to make sure they get significant finds and they get a lot of evidence.
“We want to make sure that people are held to account for the death of our loved men … we need this, we need justice, accountability and most of all truth. We want the truth of what happened that day, because we haven’t been told that yet.”
Erika Ufer calls her dad the “man in the mountain”. The nine-year-old never got to meet her father, Josh Ufer, who was one of two Australian victims.
“I have no memories of my dad,” Erika told Kea Kids News. “I call him the man in the mountain because he died in the mountain and now his spirits haunt the mountain.
“I think he would be a funny, energetic and thoughtful dad. But enough of that or it’s going to make me cry.”