'I will not give up my fight'

NEIL REID
Last updated 05:00 18/11/2012

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Families of the Pike River 29 will tomorrow return to the West Coast mine two years on from the mining disaster. On the eve of the anniversary, Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the tragedy, spoke to Neil Reid.

Time has done little to dull the pain and emotional turmoil Anna Osborne endures on a daily basis.

For two years she has grieved for her soulmate - her husband and the father of her two children.

Two years ago tomorrow, her much-adored husband, Milton, left their home in the settlement of Ngahere - 24km east of Greymouth - to travel to work. He never came home.

Along with 28 friends and workmates, the 54-year-old perished in the Pike River mine, which a royal commission of inquiry this month ruled had "leadership, operational systems and cultural problems".

As families prepare to remember the Pike River 29, Osborne said she was aware a section of New Zealand believed it was time for the loved ones of the dead miners and contractors to "move on".

But those sentiments were aired by people who had no comprehension of what families were living through, she said.

"I know there are people saying, 'Bloody hell, we are sick of Pike'," Osborne told the Sunday Star-Times. "But these are not people living the tragedy of it every day. It is something that we just don't get over and can't get over."

Her pain will continue until Milton's remains are recovered.

"It is like I am living in a surreal world, where I think I am going to wake up from a bad dream and my husband will return," Osborne said.

"Some people say to me, ‘Anna, you are always so positive' but my whole world has been ripped apart. It is very hard going out with a pained smile.

"It is a nightmare for me thinking about where my husband is each night. I go to bed and with him not laying next to me. I think about him all the time . . . where he is."

Pike River not only robbed Anna of her husband, she said. The couple's two children - Robin, 17, and Alisha, 15 - lost their devoted father.

"It is not just my husband down there, it is my children's father," she said. "They are true victims in all of this. They miss his presence, his smile, his father figure.

"He absolutely loved our kids and the kids loved him so much. He did so much with them. But that has just been completely stopped. There was no warning, there was no time to prepare, it was gone within an instant."

Milton was working at Pike River as a contractor, installing a new water pipe more than 2.5km into the mine.

He was both a strong family man and someone who had huge mana in the West Coast community, for his role as a senior member of the Ngahere Volunteer Fire Brigade and as a Grey District councillor.

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November 19, 2010, should have been a day of celebration for the Osborne family.

It was the day when Robin, then aged 15, was set to shout his parents a couple of drinks to celebrate receiving his first pay from a new part-time job.

Mid-afternoon he took Anna to a nearby establishment, bought her a raspberry and coke and they prepared to play a few games of pool.

Their world came crashing down when a friend rang Anna to ask whether Milton was working, telling her of an explosion at the mine.

Two friends came to collect Anna and they rushed to the isolated mine on the eastern side of the Paparoa Range.

"I tried to ring his cellphone, he wasn't answering," Anna Osborne said.

"We were hoping we would see the work van coming towards us as we were heading up to Pike. That never happened."

Anna made it to Pike River as emergency services were rushing to the mine - and refused to leave.

"I said, 'There is absolutely no way that I am leaving without my husband . . . I am staying put.'

"That is where I wanted to be, at the Pike site, hopefully seeing my husband walk over the hill and back into my arms. I was wanting to be there for the man that I loved."

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn had also managed to get through the cordon outside the mine site after hearing of the explosion.

"When I came down they were insisting she [Osborne] move, they were giving her hell, the management were saying, ‘You have to get out of the compound'," he said.

"[Anna] was beside herself at this point. I said, 'For God's sake mate, this woman here is not going to do any harm. Just let her sit here.' She was saying, ‘I am not leaving without Milton.' "

Kokshoorn said management finally "saw reason" and allowed Anna to stay.

She was eventually given permission to come and go from the mine, enabling her to attend meetings organised for families of the missing miners and contractors and then return to her mine-site vigil.

Robin and Alisha were looked after by family friends.

"I had to explain to them that I needed to be there because I believed that their dad was coming out and that I wanted to be there when he did come out," Anna said.

"Was I happy I stayed there for four days? Originally, yes, because we were at meetings, given hope and told that it was going to be a rescue mission, not a recovery mission. That to me indicated that they were alive, they were going to be brought out, maybe not safe and well, but they were going to be brought out alive."

That hope ended on November 24, when a second catastrophic explosion ripped through the mine.

Anna Osborne did not return to Pike River after the shattering announcement.

"That was it, there was no point me being at Pike any more," she said.

"I wasn't waiting for my husband to come out alive any more. Here we are, nearly two years down the track, and the men are still down there. It is crazy."

Osborne, along with the rest of the Pike River Families group, has ridden a brutal rollercoaster of emotions since November 19, 2010.

There was the initial shock following the first explosion, then moments of hope in the initial days following the first explosion, albeit hope fanned by overly optimistic comments by Pike River management.

The recently released Pike River royal commission of inquiry's 404-page report into the tragedy also tells of the "extreme distress" which followed confirmation to the families of the second explosion.

Anger has also featured for Anna, and other family members, especially when she looks at sacrifices Milton and his family made in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.

"Our guys worked their bloody arses off, they slogged their guts out," Anna said.

"I find it such an insult knowing how hard my husband worked, and how many hours in the day he worked for them in the two weeks leading up to the explosion. Every bloody day he worked 16 or 17-hour days, would then come home, have tea, fall asleep in the bath . . . he would dry himself off, hop into bed and that was it.

"The kids missed out on seeing him, I missed out on his company because he was either working or asleep.

"The mine explodes, it kills my husband and not even a 'sorry' . . . not even a bloody ‘sorry'. I struggle so much with that."

Anna said the Government now "owed it" to the families of the Pike River 29 to do all that was possible to at least reclaim the mine's drift - the 2.5km tunnel leading into the mine's workings.

The Pike River Families group, together with three international mining experts, had put together a re-entry plan that she urged officials to implement.

Re-entry wasn't just aimed at recovering remains of the Pike River 29, but also at finding any evidence that could avoid a repeat of the disaster.

"I know what it is like to lose a man that I love, and I don't want anyone else to experience this," Osborne said.

In early 2011, Anna won the by-election for Milton's spot on the Grey District Council.

"It was really important for my children that I tried to get their father's seat," she said. "They didn't want anyone else taking their dad's seat, they wanted me to take it."

Anna wears three reminders of Milton every day - a necklace and a bracelet which both carry a silver charm of her husband's face. She also has a tattoo on her left wrist, featuring a fern, a burning candle and the words: "Pike River 29 . . . ‘Milt'."

She said she would not be able to truly move on until everything had been done to recover his remains.

"We will never go away until we have what rightfully belongs to us - and that is our men back," Anna said.

"Until everything is done to get our men out, to get entry into at least the drift, I won't be satisfied . . . I will not stop my fight."

THE SEARCH FOR JUSTICE GOES ON
On the eve of the second anniversary of the Pike River tragedy, one of the widows of the dead men has called for criminal charges to be laid against mining and government department officials.

Family members of the Pike River 29 will tomorrow afternoon gather at the entrance of the West Coast mine to pay their respects to the miners and contractors who died in the 2010 tragedy.

And Anna Osborne is adamant that if police and government health and safety officials aren't prepared to lay charges, she backs the Pike River Families group to seek private prosecutions against those they believe were responsible.

"Twenty-nine men lost their lives and it could have been, and should have been, avoided," Osborne told Sunday Star-Times. "People failed. OK, [the] miners weren't perfect either, but people in management roles actually failed our men, and I would like to see justice for our guys.

"The Department of Labour failed our guys miserably. I think it is really important if the Labour Department aren't charged, that the families themselves go for a private prosecution.

"Depending on what charges, if any, the police lay, [we could] possibly prosecute a few other people as well who we believe are key people in failing our men."

The Star-Times revealed in January that the Labour Department – now merged into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – had ruled out prosecuting its own staff over alleged failings in the lead-up to the Pike River mining tragedy.

Green Party MP Kevin Hague had sought clarification after the department laid 25 charges over alleged health and safety breaches at the West Coast mine. He called on officials to consider action against their own staff, including Department of Labour inspectors whose job it was to ensure the mine was safe.

But Secretary of Labour Christopher Blake responded in writing to Hague that no such action would be taken, or had been proposed. Hague said the response opened the way for a private prosecution against the department, but he was unsure if he would lead any legal action.

- Sunday Star Times

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