Another blow for Pike River battler

BEFORE TRAGEDY: Daniel, Ben and Neville Rockhouse three weeks before the explosion at Pike River that took Ben’s life.
BEFORE TRAGEDY: Daniel, Ben and Neville Rockhouse three weeks before the explosion at Pike River that took Ben’s life.

Neville Rockhouse constantly asks himself how much pain and heartache his family can endure.

The Pike River mining tragedy robbed him of his much-loved youngest son, Ben, while his other son, Daniel, was lucky to escape with his life after the West Coast mine exploded on the afternoon of November 19, 2010.

Just hours after the disaster - which killed 29 miners and contractors - Rockhouse's father, Ray (Rocky), died of a heart attack.

HARD HIT: Neville and Tracy Rockhouse
HARD HIT: Neville and Tracy Rockhouse

Rockhouse had to battle intense family grief at the same time as some questioned his professional reputation - he was Pike River's safety manager at the time of the explosion.

But now, 17 months on from the release of the Pike River royal commission of inquiry's final report which ruled Rockhouse did all he could to keep the mine's workforce safe, tragedy has struck again.

His wife, Tracy, is battling an aggressive form of cancer.

And just weeks ago they lost their business - and temporary lodgings - on the West Coast after Cyclone Ita battered the region.

Now hunting for a job in Christchurch, Rockhouse said: "It is one disaster after another for [us], this last four years.

"There most certainly has been a lot of bad luck or situations that we have been through, one after another. I am long overdue for a nervous breakdown, I believe or a heart attack, or all of the above."

In late 2012, Neville and Tracy Rockhouse moved from Christchurch back to the West Coast. They wanted a different lifestyle, and it also allowed them to be closer to Pike River as work continues for the hoped-for re-entry to the mine. But shortly after taking on the lease to manage and live at the Rapahoe Hotel - 11km north of Greymouth - Tracy (who is Ben and Daniel's stepmother) was diagnosed with cancer.

"I am still reeling from Pike River and trying to get over that - then the diagnosis of cancer just left us high and dry," Rockhouse said.

Together for the past 14 years, and married since July 2012, Rockhouse said it was heart-wrenching to see his wife endure eight months of treatment, including two operations to remove tumours and a six-month period of chemotherapy.

Following a trip to Perth next week - where Rockhouse will address the Safety Institute of Australia's "Safety in Action" conference in Perth - Tracy will begin six-weeks of radiation treatment.

Rockhouse has pulled back from the Pike River families group's re-entry committee following Tracy's cancer diagnosis, saying his focus was now "to be at the side of my wife and help nurse her through her personal battle with this insidious disease".

Rockhouse confided that it was his wife's love that had helped him get through life following the mining tragedy.

"Without Tracy standing by my side during the Pike River disaster, and the aftermath of that, it would have been very hard," he said.

An already tough existence was further shattered in mid-April when Cyclone Ita hit the West Coast. Winds topping 170kmh and torrential rain left a trail of carnage, destroying several homes and badly damaging many businesses, including the Rapahoe Hotel.

Rockhouse was on duty as a volunteer with the Runanga Fire Brigade when the cyclone hit.

He was working with other volunteers to secure a damaged property when alerted to a drama unfolding at the hotel, where Tracy was home alone.

"The fire chief comes over and yells, ‘You have got to go home - comms have just got a call that the roof is lifting off the Rapahoe Hotel.'

"But by the time the rest of the fire brigade arrived, Gavin Gibbons the fire chief said, ‘I am not risking anyone climbing up there to nail that down.' It [the roof] was too far gone, it was disintegrating."

What followed was a "frantic move" from the Rockhouses to save as many of their possessions as possible before they had to evacuate the site.

All the while, roofing iron, Pink Batts and other structural material was being flung through the air and dumped in the nearby surf.

Cyclone Ita severely damaged up to 15 rooms at the hotel.

Because the Rockhouses didn't have business interruption insurance, they could not afford to stay on as leaseholders while the hotel was being fixed.

"We have been hit pretty hard," Rockhouse said. "We know we are not the only ones who have been affected by Cyclone Ita. It has been yet another massive kick in the guts for the West Coast. We haven't lost everything, but we have lost a fair bit."

Rockhouse said the legacy of the Pike River tragedy, Tracy's cancer and the loss of their business and home had served them up with a "pretty horrific" period of their lives.

But, as he continues to seek fulltime employment, Rockhouse said the tough times had taught him what counted the most in life.

"These types of things really get you to focus on your true values in life - your family comes first," he said.

"[What is important] is those that love you and take you with all your lumps and bumps and warts and all and expect nothing of you except your love for them."

Sunday Star Times