Proper Pike River memorial essential

Last updated 05:00 08/11/2014

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The Pike River tragedy drags to its unhappy end. The families of the 29 miners are left unsatisfied and unconvinced that the bodies of their loved ones could not have been retrieved. They are rightly angry that nobody suffered any legal punishment for this dreadful disaster. And yet even the families also want to move on after their four years of agony.

The best result is the decision to build a proper memorial at the site with the help and advice of the families themselves. The Government has promised $2 million from the retrieval fund and says it will look favourably on any request for more money. And so it should. The mine is now a burial site and is hallowed ground.

It should be made into a beautiful place for meditation and remembrance, primarily for the families but also for the rest of New Zealand. The loss of the 29 men at Pike River is a tragedy not just for the community of the West Coast but for the whole country. It is also a lesson for everybody. We can do nothing about the tragedy. We can learn the lessons and mourn the men.

Politicians have suggested that Solid Energy's decision not to re-enter the mine is somehow a commercial one. Some have suggested that the company took an unrealistic "zero-risk" approach. This seems unfair. Solid Energy chairwoman Pip Dunphy says the company was responsible for the lives of those it sent back down the mine. It therefore had to take the most rigorous possible approach to the question of risk. It should be added that this puts it into a more difficult position than that of the safety expert who said he was prepared to enter the mine himself. He was entitled to speak on his own behalf, but the company would be responsible for everyone it allowed into the mine. This is profoundly disappointing and frustrating for the families, and anyone in their situation would feel exactly the same.

John Key has also been criticised for making rash promises soon after the explosion about the retrieval of the men. There is some truth in this, and his pledge raised hopes among the families that in the course of four years have been slowly extinguished. This is another reason why the Government must do everything it can to honour the men left buried in the mine and to help the families come to terms with their loss.

There is a suggestion that the Government might bring a civil action in the case, although lawyers point out that many witnesses are now in Australia and cannot be forced to return. There is a theoretical case for bringing the action, given the disappointing outcome of the criminal case, but in practice the prospects of success are dim. And families' spokesman Bernie Monk admits that "I've got to start asking myself, do I want to go through another three or four years of agony?"

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The lesson has been learned that light-handed safety regulations are a contradiction in terms. We have now returned to more rational systems and there has been a move away from neo-liberal nonsense in the whole area of work safety, and that is a good thing. The price of the lesson, however, was 29 lost lives, and that is a dreadful price to pay. The explosion at Pike River leaves a chasm of agony and grief.

- The Dominion Post

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