Emotions still raw two years after Pike tragedy

21:39, Nov 16 2012
Willie Joynson
IT'S BEEN TOUGH: Willie Joynson died in the Pike River tragedy. He is pictured with his son, Jonathan, and wife, Kim.

A signpost at the Pike River memorial garden in Atarau points around New Zealand and the world to the home towns of 29 men killed two years ago on Monday. Deidre Mussen talks to some of their families about life since the fatal blast.

"It's been two years of hell," says Australian widow Kim Joynson, whose husband, Willie, 49, died in the Pike River coalmine blast two years ago.

He was one of 29 men killed when the mine exploded at 3.44pm on November 19, 2010.

pike memorial
NOT FORGOTTEN: The Pike River memorial garden at Atarau is a poignant tribute to the lost men

She returned to her Queensland home with her two sons less than two months later, during the peak of the region's floods.

Her father died soon after. Then they experienced the February 2011 earthquake while at Christchurch International Airport, and were back in the city for the June 13 quakes.

Their youngest son, Benjamin, 12, has developed epilepsy from stress over his father's death and their eldest, Jonathan, 15, has mild autism and struggles to express his grief. "I think as a family we are only just starting to really get into the grieving process and are trying to plan a new year," Joynson says from Australia.


Zen Drew Verhoeven
COASTER: Zen Drew Verhoeven lost his life in the blast.

They had been on the West Coast for about 16 months but planned to return to Australia in January last year.

Her husband feared the mine would explode and complained to his bosses.

The couple discussed it five days before the blast, working out what they would do if the worst happened.

"There were a lot of problems at the mine that last week. My husband was extremely worried and said he felt that it was going to go. I pleaded with him not to go back to work that week.

"I wanted him to just walk away, but he had loyalty to his job and his mates."

He was not supposed to go there that fateful day and had planned to take his sons fishing after school. When they got home they found his note saying he had gone to work.

Like many Pike families, she welcomes the royal commission's report, released on November 5, and wants its 16 recommendations implemented urgently. It highlights the mine's safety problems and criticises the Government and the former Labour Department.

Her husband spent most of his working life underground, as did his father and grandfather. "Mining is in his blood and now his blood is in the mine."

Many Pike River families will return to the mine on Monday and hold a private gathering at the memorial garden in Atarau, which has 29 boulders dedicated to the victims.

Joynson is getting a duplicate of her husband's stone erected next month under a gum tree in a cemetery near her home to have a special place in Australia. She plans to spend the anniversary with her two sons watching turtles lay eggs on a beach near Bundaberg to create nicer memories of a black date.

They will return to New Zealand next month and spend time in Greymouth rekindling friendships.

One of the hardest things, she says, has been living far from the support of other Pike River families.

The parents of Scottish engineer Malcolm Campbell, 25, have also had to grieve from afar. Malcolm Campbell Sr and his wife, Jane, will arrive in New Zealand tomorrow, to be joined by their daughter, Kerry, 26, who lives in Australia. They will visit the mine and say goodbye to their only son and brother.

"It will be a difficult day. I don't know how we are going to react," Malcolm Campbell says. "We can't put our lives on hold. Hopefully, we will feel like we will get some closure from this."

Campbell, who works in a quarry, says the past two years have been made worse after learning the mine had so many problems, revealed during the royal commission of inquiry.

The Campbells hope the Government swiftly introduces the report's recommendations. "I know it's too late for our boys but I hope that it changes. Kerry is the same as me. She wants things to change, to know 29 men killed at Pike River made life better for the next generation. We don't want the boys to die in vain."

His son had planned to marry his Kiwi fiancee, Amanda Shields, on December 18. The family have stayed in touch with her and hope to meet again on this trip.

They also look forward to seeing other Pike River families while in Greymouth.

This year Dianne Morris, the Kiwi girlfriend of the other Scottish victim, Peter Rodgers, 40, visited them while in Scotland. "I have just had a couple of months in Scotland meeting his friends and walking in his footsteps, which was a very cathartic time for me," says Morris, who is in Australia and has been travelling for six months.

The blast happened a few months after she moved to Greymouth, after living in Christchurch for 20 years.

She struggles to feel a sense of belonging anywhere because she is reluctant to return to the quake zone.

While she will not be back in New Zealand for the anniversary, she will head to Greymouth on her return.

"It has been a long and hard road we've been on, which is still far from over, and I do appreciate all the support the Pike families have given me," she says.

Dan Duggan, of Dobson, agrees support from other families and the community has been important. He was Pike's control room officer when his youngest brother, Chris, 31, died underground.

The 34-year-old lives with the fact he switched on power to the hydro-mining water pumps a minute or two before the blast, which had been off for routine maintenance.

Some experts blamed it for creating a spark that ignited the methane blast. "It was pretty tough when the theory out there was that I'd pressed the button and killed 29."

While he does not agree, he admits it is possible, but knows the explosion was not his fault. "I try not to take it to heart."

When the blast happened he was talking on the mine's communication system to Campbell. The line cut off after an unidentified noise.

He regrets not calling the Mines Rescue Service and emergency services immediately power and communications stopped at the mine.

"I had a bad feeling and should have just rung them, even to put them on standby."

The alarm was subsequently raised.

He knew the men's survival chances were low within several hours because they had failed to walk out.

Duggan has not returned to the mine since that day and was made redundant from Pike River the next month.

"I don't know if I'm ready to go back up there. I've always been meaning to go up, but I want to go with family or on my own privately, not in a big busload or something."

On Monday, he plans to head to work as a forester but will spend the evening with his family and friends.

Zen Drew Verhoeven's mother, Leeza Verhoeven, recalls saying goodbye to her son after their last quality one-on-one time together at his Cobden home.

"Zen was by the car and I couldn't stop crying. I felt devastated about leaving him and I didn't know why."

It was the end of six months of living in an old caravan parked at Zen's house - a time she treasures before she moved to Oamaru in about March 2010.

She says the horrendous grief of losing her son has been made worse by not knowing if the men's bodies can be recovered. "We can't get on with the grief process because things keep cropping up and it's still like that. It's still a waiting game.

"In my heart, I believe it will be possible to get in there and I will never, ever give up that hope."

Her son was 21 when killed, the eldest of her three children and all raised mainly on the Coast.

He worked as a building contractor at Pike River for less than a year but stayed longer than planned, despite hating being underground.

Revelations of serious problems at the mine, which led to the blast, has made grieving harder, she says.

"When the explosion happened, I assumed it was an accident. It wasn't an accident. When I sat through the royal commission hearings I came to the conclusion it wasn't one major fault; nothing was being done properly and that people knew about it."

Many of the families want the police to prosecute over the disaster, she says.

She is returning to the West Coast for the anniversary and will catch up with other families.

"I don't think I personally would have survived it without the other families. We are all solid together. We share our strengths and take turns at being strong, helping everybody to cope."

Many families praise efforts to push for action by Bernie Monk, who lost his son, Michael, 23, in the blast and has since become spokesman for most Pike River families. Monk says: "I don't mind admitting I was just about to throw the towel in just before the royal commission report came out because I was exhausted."

The report, combined with the sadness in the women's and children's eyes, drives him on, he says. "I won't walk away from it if they have a shot at going into the mine."

Monk organised three international mining experts to come to Greymouth last week to review whether the mine could be re-entered safely. Their recovery plan has gone to the mine's new owner, Solid Energy, and the Mines Rescue Service. It will also go to the Government.

The hardest thing to accept is that he still has not got his son's body home, he says. "I do a lot of crying by myself. All I can see is his face."

The Press