Remembering the Pike River 29

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Wednesday 19 November is the fourth anniversary of the explosion at the Pike River mine on the West Coast, which killed 29 men in 2010. There is added poignancy with the recent announcement that there will be no further attempts to recover the bodies. The anniversary is being marked this year by a television documentary, Dreams lie deeper, featuring a vocal tribute by Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington.

This was the seventh major disaster in a New Zealand coal mine. A total of 210 men have lost their lives in such disasters. All were due to explosions by methane gas given off by coal or asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, formed after a fire or explosion.

As with most coal mine disasters, the Pike River tragedy would not have happened if established safety precautions had been followed. Both the Royal Commission report and Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River Mine reveal a series of problems that were consistently overlooked by the board of directors and the executive managers of Pike River Coal Ltd in their rush to get production under way. For months before the explosion there had been reports of excess methane and other health and safety problems. The safety inspectors employed by the Labour Department were overworked, and relied on reports by the company that all safety requirements were being complied with.

One of the main recommendations of the Royal Commission was that the government should set up an independent safety organisation. Worksafe New Zealand now has statutory responsibility for all safety issues in the workplace, with a designated High Hazards Unit for industries such as coal mining and oil exploration.

Last year the Orpheus Choir of Wellington asked Dave Dobbyn to write a piece dedicated to the 29 men who died in the Pike River mine. The documentary (Wednesday 19 November, 9.30 p.m. on TV1) follows Dobbyn as he travels to Greymouth to meet members of the victims’ families and completes the composition and arrangement of ‘This love’ with Mark Dorrell. As the lyrics evolved, Dobbyn chose to focus on the love and memories of the families rather than bitterness about the events leading up to the disaster. You can listen online to the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices singing ‘This love’.

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