It has been a decade since an explosion at New Zealand’s Pike River mine killed 29 miners and for the family left the wounds remain raw and open.
Sometimes it feels like life and other times it feels like it was yesterday, Sonya Rockhouse, who lost her son in the blast, i said RNZ. The only thing I have noticed since the time has passed is that I have started to forget how my boys sounded, which is disturbing.
On Thursday afternoon the relatives will gather at the memorial site down the road from the mine and at 3.44 in the afternoon they will hold a minute of silence at the mouth of the mine. The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, will pay homage to Wellington, with flags at half-staff. Accumulation will be small for many families, the mouth of the mine is a traumatic place.
The name Pike River provokes a communal tremor in New Zealand by hitting the heart of the west coast, where jobs are scarce, homes are hit by the meeting of coastal and alpine climates, and population numbers have long been steadily declining.
For four horrific days after an explosion on November 19, 2010, families fled in the hope that 29 miners working in the pit that day had survived. But an accumulation of poisonous gases prevented rescuers from entering.
Public pressure to launch an underground rescue mission was intense, spurred on by the stunning rescue of 33 Chilean miners a few months ago. But since that first afternoon many families said they felt railroaded by misinformation and blocking tactics by the government, then owner Pike River Coal, who sold the state-owned mine to Solid Energy in 2012.
An investigation completed that there was never 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. He detailed a large number of supervisions and malfunctions including inadequate ventilation, incorrect mine design and issues at the management level. It was a new mine with old-fashioned problems, in anticipation of disaster.
The commission also accused the government of poor oversight: in 2010 there were only two mining inspectors for the whole country.
In the years since the disaster, many of the families of the 29 youths have seen the saw between the stages of grief. But one thing that has kept them almost completely united is their commitment to bringing their husbands, fathers and sons home.
In 2017, the Workers-led government under Ardern announced that a specialist team would re-enter the mine to search for evidence and troops.
Although obstacles have been frequent, miners in the recovery effort have reached the main entrance tunnel 2,146 meters inside.
The next stage is for the miners to break the foam seal that blocks the shaft. Delayed gases mean they will carry breathing apparatus. They hope to reach a tunnel area where the roof collapsed by Christmas.
The engineering effort is complex with a constant flow of nitrogen into the mine to protect it from further explosion. Dinghy Pattinson, chief operating officer for the recovery mission, told AAP: Weve had the plant since October 2018 and pumped 10 million cubic meters of nitrogen into it.
Pattinson said he believed the operation should be seen as a success, no matter what happens. There were a lot of people out there who said this job should not be done, it is not safe to do. Weve proved that they were wrong.
For families, returning miners home remains paramount. Most have not yet held funerals for their loved ones, or have chosen a final resting place.
This evidence that will be gathered from there, hopefully, some bodies remain and are doing it slowly, slowly, slowly because it needs to be done properly, Rockhouse told television in the morning. We want this investigation to be the best it can be we want to make sure they get meaningful findings and get a lot of evidence.
We want to make sure people are held accountable for the deaths of our loved ones, we need that, we need justice, accountability and above all the truth. We want the truth of what happened that day because we have not been told yet.
Erika Ufer calls her father the man on the mountain. The nine-year-old never met her father, Josh Ufer, who was one of two Australian victims.
“I have no memory of my father,” Erika told Kea Kids News. I call that man on the mountain because he died on the mountain and now his spirits follow the mountain.
I think he would be a funny, energetic and thoughtful father. But that’s enough or it will make me cry.