Pike River: 'Our darkest hour'

PM: Loss is agonising blow

Last updated 23:04 24/11/2010

Robot enters the Pike River mine

Boss's heart-breaking moment with families

Joseph Ray Dunbar
JOSEPH RAY DUNBAR: 17, Greymouth. The youngest of the miners. The day of the explosion was his first day working underground.

Mayor: 'They're all dead'

Pike River Coal mine
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax Media Zoom
SHOCK: Shortly after family members were told of the second explosion at the Pike River mine.

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LATEST: Family members fell to the ground in grief after learning the 29 trapped miners could not have survived a second explosion, marking New Zealand's worst single loss of life since Erebus.

Distraught family members left a scheduled briefing this afternoon, only about 10 minutes after it had started, and many of them were in tears. They had been told their family members - underground since a first massive gas explosion on Friday - could not have survived the second blast.

About 200 people, including Opposition leader Phil Goff, Greymouth Mayor Tony Kokshoorn and Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall attended the vigil for the miners, which had been held each day since the miners first went missing on Friday.

One of the two men who walked out of the mine on Friday, Daniel Rockhouse, also attended the service with his family who spent several minutes embracing Whittall.

Father John Morrison, of the St Patrick's Catholic Church just down the road, read a message from Pope Benedict XVI in which the Pope expressed his condolences and sympathy for the events in Greymouth.

The message said he was distressed to hear of the accident and he shared the anxiety of the families. He remembered them in a special way in his prayers and he invoked a blessing to give people courage and strength.

Anglican vicar Marge Teffe addressed the packed church first, saying it was a devastating day for the West Coast. She paid tribute to Whittall and said, "we don't know how you do it".

Miner Zen Drew's father said he had accepted his son is dead.

Flanked by son Terry, partner Mandy and wearing 21-year-old Zen's jacket, Lawrie Drew told CloseUp that because he was "in tune" with Zen, he had accepted he was dead before this afternoon's explosion.

Despite that, he had still been hoping for a miracle.

"We just want our loved ones so we can get closure now and then let the process take course," he said.

The families had been clapping just before Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall told them the bad news as they believed progress was being made.

"... then he hushed us up and told us the bomb shell," Mr Drew said.

Most families had "lost it", shouting and asking why rescuers had not gone into the mine on Friday night.

Mr Drew said he felt like he had failed his son because he had been unable to protect him.

He accused the mine of being unsafe and said he wanted an inquiry and to see "the truth come out".

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The brother of lost miner Conrad Adams said he just wanted his brother to come home.

"Conrad Adams is down the mine and he's my brother. It's just a terrible thing to have to think about. He's my brother and he's got two children he loves more than anything in the world. And his mother. And he has a sister whose very dear to him. He's an uncle, he's a brother-in-law and we just all want him to come home,'' Clayton Adams said.

His older brother Conrad was extremely popular on the coast, Clayton said.  ``He's a huge presence, I guess, in my life. We've met people throughout the last couple of days and they say, 'I know your brother. Everyone knows Conrad. I had a laugh with him just the other day','' he said.

'A NATIONAL TRAGEDY'

Prime Minister John Key said the country would be devastated by the "national tragedy".

"To lose this many brothers at once strikes an agonising blow."

Key confirmed a rescue team was preparing to go into the mine just before the second explosion ripped through it at 2.37pm.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn broke down as he left the family briefing.

"They told us there was a massive explosion and there was no way there were any survivors.

"We thought we were going to get some good news."

He said family members dropped to the floor after hearing the news, with many angry at how police had handled the operation.

"They just dropped to the floor. It's anger, as simple as that."

"It's just gut-wrenching. This is our darkest hour."

Kokshoorn said for days there had been discussion among locals that the safest time to enter a mine was straight after an explosion.

He said the second explosion was "far bigger than the first".

"What we've got is a very angry group of families."

He said it appeared a lethal mixture of gases had ignited the mine.

 "It doesn't get worse than this ... this is the West Coast's darkest hour."

He said it was time for families and locals to "concentrate on the people we've lost".

RECOVERY PROMISE

Pike River CEO Peter Whittall reassured families of the victims that the company would do what it could to recover bodies.

"I still want them back and their families want them back and we'll be doing everything we can to make that happen.

''My love and support are with those guys,'' he said.

The families are ''absolutely devastated by the news".

''They had all held out hope that their son, their brother would be the lucky one,'' he said.

His voice cracked as he said, "I'm unlikely to see my workmates again".

Whittall delivered the news to family in person. One of the first men who came up to him was a father and he gave him a big hug and said he did ''everything he could".

''It was hard. They've looked to me for hope...

"I've got a lot of respect for the families I've been working with for the last five days. They've been very supportive of us. We've tried to be as supportive of them as we could. They've got a terrible, terrible thing to deal with now.

"As you can imagine, they are absolutely devastated by the news. They've all held out hope that it was their son or their husband or their brother that would be the lucky one, they've all held that hope out, but I have to say that probably all are feeling that that hope is now gone."

They will continue to monitor gas to see if they can re-enter the mine.

''We've still got 29 men in there and we've got to get them out.''

THE VICTIMS

Conrad John Adams, Malcolm Campbell, Glen Peter Cruse, Allan John Dixon, Zen Wodin Drew, Christopher Peter Duggan, Joseph Ray Dunbar, John Leonard Hale, Daniel Thomas Herk, David Mark Hoggart, Richard Bennett Holling, Andrew David Hurren, Jacobus (Koos) Albertus Jonker, William John Joynson, Riki Steve Keane, Terry David Kitchin, Samuel Peter Mackie, Francis Skiddy Marden, Michael Nolan Hanmer Monk, Stuart Gilbert Mudge, Kane Barry Nieper, Peter O'Neill, Milton John Osborne, Brendan John Palmer, Benjamin David Rockhouse, Peter James Rodger, Blair David Sims, Joshua Adam Ufer, Keith Thomas Valli.

» Click here for profiles of the miners

SECOND EXPLOSION

Whittall said large volumes of smoke came out from underground about 2.45pm.  

He said the blast was larger than the first explosion. "It was not what I wanted to see."

It was very unlikely there could be any survivors, he said.

No rescue measures caused the explosion, he said. ''It came from somewhere up in the mine.''

Investigation head Superintendent Gary Knowles said the large explosion happened at 2.37pm.

They were now going into recovery mode.

It was one of the most horrific things he has had to deal with as a policeman.

"We had to break the news to the family and they are extremely distraught.

"I was at the mine myself when the explosion occurred. The blast was horrific. Just as severe as the first blast - and we are now moving into a recovery mode."

SPECIAL INQUIRY

Chief coroner Judge Neil McLean today announced he would open a special inquiry into the Pike River coalmine deaths.

McLean is in Auckland today for a conference of coroners from around Asia and the Pacific.

Police Commissioner Howard Broad tonight defended the rescue operation, saying criticism of Superintendent Gary Knowles, who headed it, was completely unjustified.

Broad said Knowles had led "an extremely professional and thoroughly detailed operation''.

"Superintendant Gary Knowles has had an extraordinarily difficult role, one of the most challenging police roles that I've seen encountered in my entire career.''

POLITICAL RESPONSE

Key expected a series of inquiries, including from police and the Labour Department, on top of a commission of inquiry.

He said Parliament would be suspended as a mark of respect for the "national tragedy" and flags would fly at half mast on Government buildings.

"After days of waiting ... they have been delivered the cruellest news.

"Like every New Zealander I hoped for that miracle in my heart of hearts."

Key will travel to Greymouth tomorrow morning.

Labour leader Phil Goff earlier called for Parliament to be suspended out of respect for the loss of life.

He expressed his "heartfelt sympathy" at the loss of life.

"This is a devastating shock for the families and the entire community. I want to extend my support and sympathy to those caught up in this terrible tragedy," Goff said.

"We know that Coasters are brave and resilient and will band together as they work through this terrible time. But the community should know that the entire country will be mourning alongside them."

He will travel to Greymouth tomorrow, as planned.

- Stuff

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