Pike River mine disaster
No-one was going to stop Mick O'Donnell entering the Strongman mine after it exploded. His brother, Jimmy, was in there somewhere. It was 1967 and, back then, no-one waited around for a copper to give them permission.
O'Donnell was just 19 when a methane gas explosion ripped through the Greens section of the country's biggest coal mine at Runanga, north of Greymouth, killing 19.
"I grabbed a mine's rescue set, threw it over me shoulder and walked towards the mine mouth," O'Donnell told the Sunday Star-Times.
"There were three officials standing there and they said `you're not going in'. I said `get out of the way, or I'll go right over the top of ya'. They tried to stop me, but I wouldn't stop."
O'Donnell walked through the toxic atmosphere in the Greens section and, happily, found his brother, who was helping to establish ventilation. They then found the first bodies.
O'Donnell is one of the ex-miners who feature in a documentary on the Strongman disaster, Strongman – The Tragedy, which screens tonight on TV3. The film, by first-time director/producer Paula McTaggart, doesn't mention Pike River, but the 2010 disaster hangs over the programme like a black cloud. It's impossible to watch without thinking of what happened at Pike River, when methane explosions killed 29.
A reconstruction of the explosion, and other dramatic segments directed by Gaylene Preston, may prove especially difficult for Pike River families, images of billowing black smoke gushing from a ventilation shaft all too reminiscent of the events of November 19, 2010.
McTaggart, who comes from a Runanga mining family and whose uncle, Ronnie Gibb, was one of the first to enter Strongman after the explosion, says when Pike River happened, it almost stopped her project in its tracks.
"When I heard about Pike I was just stunned," she says. "Here I'd been working on Strongman for a couple of years, never in a million years did I envisage that another disaster would happen. It really knocked me for six. I spoke to some of the people who I'd interviewed, we talked about it, and decided it was the right thing to carry on, that it was even more important that it got made."
McTaggart says the disaster was a critical part of New Zealand history, but had been largely overlooked outside the West Coast. It was a story that needed to be told, she says.
"They [Pike River families] may take from it the fact they are not alone, the Strongman people had gone through this. But it will be very hard for them to watch it. But West Coasters are amazing people, they are incredibly resilient and a very close-knit community."
There was a sense, McTaggart says, that if the documentary wasn't made now, it never would be, as more and more of those involved have died. Around eight people she had spoken to, including two who feature in the programme, had died since she began doing interviews in 2008.
McTaggart says the two disasters should be viewed separately.
"I think people will find parallels, but they are very different, Strongman was a state mine, it wasn't privately owned. The way of mining was completely different, it was pick and shovel and blasting."
But all disasters share some similarities, she says.
"Complacency is disaster's best friend. People get complacent, they become maybe a little lax. One interview subject said `we had lost our respect for methane'."
The honesty of those featured in the programme is refreshing. O'Donnell says in the film that all the workers were flaunting the rules to some extent for the sake of production.
He tells the Star-Times: "You could say familiarity breeds contempt. I think everybody was taking shortcuts. We weren't paying as much attention to safety as we could have and that went right up the chain."
There is also lingering bitterness at the commission of inquiry, which many believe was a whitewash designed to throw blame back on the workers, particularly a deputy (underground foreman) who fired the explosive shot that is believed to have ignited methane that had built up in nearby disused workings.
O'Donnell says in the film that workers were told to keep their mouths shut and say nothing, or the mine would be closed and they would lose their jobs.
"We just shut up, and it's a real crime we did," he says.
McTaggart says the late 1960s were dark days for coal mining.
"There was a National Government in. They weren't investing in mining, they were investing in hydro electricity. The West Coast was a very depressed place, mines were closing or under threat of closure."
O'Donnell says he feels "gutted" for the miners and rescue workers at Pike River, who were prevented from launching a rescue mission by police, who had taken charge of the scene.
"The police arrived at Strongman and they said `we're here to help' and that's what they done. The decisions underground were made by mining people. All I can say is, we got 15 bodies out the first day. We went in and done it, and if I was at Pike River I would have gone in again too. I think any of the old timers would have gone in.
"The world's changed, probably there's too much political correctness now, maybe we're a bit too cautious. The people in Christchurch went into buildings that were falling down, and they pulled people out – they didn't wait for a bloody policeman to tell them if they could go in."
Terry Crowley, a mines rescue worker who entered Strongman after the explosion, is another who believes a rescue mission should have been launched at Pike River after the first explosion.
"If I'd been in charge, I would have gone in. There was a hell of a risk, with only one entrance, but when we went into the affected area at Strongman, while there were two entrances, we only used one," he says.
"The explosion had probably damaged some of the seals within the mine that direct the air ... the first thing you do is you go in and try to repair those seals in a progressive manner, until you get to a point where you've established a fresh air station. That's the point at which you would then launch your rescue operation.
"I think the biggest problem at Pike River was nobody knew who was in charge. I think there was a bit of disorganisation and chaos."
Crowley says mines rescue staff put a plan in place straight away at Strongman. "There was clear direction right from the first moment.
"I think if another decision had been made about going into [Pike River] instead of fluffing around with procedures like they did, particularly coming out of Wellington, you might have had a slightly different story. "
Harry Bell, a former chief inspector of mines who advised McTaggart and features in the documentary, has also acted as a professional witness for Pike River families at the royal commission of inquiry. Bell worked at Pike River when it was being built and complained about conditions then. He says ventilation was no good, and it was a disaster waiting to happen.
"It was just pure pressure, they were running out of money, they weren't getting the production. They even offered the men a big bonus if they got a certain amount of coal out before Christmas. Safety went out the window."
Bell says conditions at Pike River after the explosion were completely different to Strongman. A wet area at the bottom of the Greens section had killed the flame, preventing the fireball from going through the whole mine. "It meant we could walk in fresh air for about 2km. The main fan at Strongman was still going, at Pike River the main fan got blown away, they had no ventilation – we did."
He would not criticise the decision not to enter Pike.
"They did the right thing. They talk about a window of opportunity but it's all bullshit. There's mines in America that have blown up again two hours later.
"Everyone was saying it was five days `till it blew up [again], they could have gone in, but that's all in hindsight. There's definitely no window of opportunity at all, and that's been well proven at the commission."
Bell says there was no Osh (Occupational Safety and Health) Act in 1967, no intricate risk assessments and safety equipment – mines rescue staff just went in and did their job.
He never thought he'd see another disaster like Strongman.
"It [Pike River] should never have happened – not in this day and age, they have far better gear than we ever did."
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