27 November 2010

Let us bring them home

Elsewhere on the West Coast. Typical country, typical weather.

Last Friday evening as I was driving to meet friends, the radio reported an explosion at the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast. While the news seemed disturbing I didn’t comprehend its significance — after all, mining accidents on any substantial scale didn’t happen in New Zealand, they happened in China or other countries with lax industrial safety, didn’t they? Even when I heard twenty-nine miners hadn’t returned to the surface, I didn’t imagine what would eventuate over the next week. Rescuers would locate the miners and bring them out, I thought, and all would be well except for the inevitable inquiries and politicking.

Now we know. Now we know the outcome was the worst of all outcomes. Now we know twenty-nine men will never again walk in the sun, never again see their children, their partners, their friends; never again yarn at the pub over a beer, never again walk in the bush or fish in the rivers, never again see the evening sun light up the great peaks of the Southern Alps. I still find it hard to believe, and although I have no direct or even lateral connection with the community to which those twenty-nine miners belong, I still feel something of the enormity of the loss. I’m suspicious of large-scale grieving, which seems to me too often to feed on itself and generate an outwelling of emotion at least partly independent of its ostensible reason, yet what I feel seems to be grief — nothing remotely as agonising as that felt by the families and friends of those miners, of course, but grief nevertheless.

The first explosion happened on the Friday afternoon. The following Wednesday I walked up the No. 1 Line track, through the bush to the lookout. The sun shone, a mild breeze rustled through the scrub, a few blowflies droned between sunlit perches. Fire Other small insects darted or fumbled about and a riroriro sang from further down the track. I thought of the miners trapped several kilometres underground in the dark and sweltering heat, and I hoped they’d managed to find air somewhere, enough to keep them going. But the thought seemed desperate. That morning I’d heard how the rescuers had drilled through into the mine and the gases they’d found had been mostly methane and carbon monoxide, with little oxygen. I think I realised then that the optimism I’d been feeling was mere hope and nothing more. The mine, apparently, was still smouldering, consuming oxygen, generating carbon monoxide, waiting until the methane built up so it could ignite another explosion. I thought of what it must be like down there and it seemed like Hell.

As I made my way down the track I kept thinking not just of the twenty-nine miners, but the mine itself. In my imagination it seemed alive; it had taken on a kind of personality — sinister, not to be trusted, uncontrollable. Malevolent. These miners are mine, it seemed to be saying; I will not give them up, I will not let you in.

Ill-formed images arose, perhaps from the previous night’s dreams, perhaps from the shadowlands between sleeping and waking when I’d turned the radio on and drifted in and out of dark dreams while news bulletins repeated the latest news from the mine, over and over and over. Now I picked my way down the steep track, through a patchwork of shade and sunlight; I looked out over the blue-hazed rolling hills of the Manawatu and Rangitikei and the thought of those men trapped inside a mountain seemed a contrast too great to comprehend. A week earlier, some of them might have enjoyed the same kind of freedom I was enjoying now.

Back home later in the afternoon, I switched on the TV. Breaking news, it said. Second explosion at mine. Then — All hope gone. I sat on the sofa and watched and listened while the reporters repeated everything in detail, trying to find something additional, but there was nothing more to say of any significance. The twenty-nine miners were gone and now nothing could bring them back.

But the mine hadn’t finished. Yesterday a minute’s silence was to have been observed at 3:44 p.m., exactly one week since the first explosion that trapped the miners. In what seemed an act of malevolence, the mine exploded again yesterday — a smaller explosion than the first two, but the timing seemed to be the work of something sentient. The third explosion tore through the mine just five minutes before the observance, at 3:39 p.m.

I felt like standing in front of the mine and pleading with it. Saying, “You've hurt us enough. Please — let us bring them home.”

Photos (please note these have no direct connection with Pike River):
1. The Mungo Valley on the West Coast of the South Island. Typical country, typical weather.
2. After the big slip in Te Awaoteatua Stream almost a year ago, someone decided to burn the piles of logs and fallen trees. I don’t know why they just weren't left to rot down, although I suspect it had something to do with the kiwi bloke's common desire to set a match to anything considered marginally untidy. A relic of pioneering days, perhaps? Whatever the reason, after the initial conflagration the remains smouldered for days. 

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...


Bob McKerrow said...

A moving piece Pete. My daughter is married into a gold mining and coal mining family not far away. The risks are high.

Coasters live close to the edge. Fishing, logging and mining. People die often in these occupations. My great-grandfather's brother is buried north of westport, killed by a mining accident.

Thanks for your tribute.

Zhoen said...


20th Century Woman said...

When I heard the news here in the US my first thought was like yours -- that doesn't happen in New Zealand. They manage things better there.

A beautifully written piece.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks everyone, although it's the families and friends and colleagues I'd ask you to think of most.

I walked back up No. 1 Line today and sat on the ground at the lookout, enjoying the sun, scanning the far mountainside with binoculars. At 2:22 I felt a sudden shudder, the ground moving beneath me. Of course it had no significance, no connection with the mine. But it seemed to be a reminder — something about our powerlessness in the face of geology. I guess this is what happens when something affects us deeply: we find meaning in things we'd otherwise hardly notice.

John said...

Dear Pete,

I've been reading your blog off and on, as travels fling me hither and yon, pretty much since you started the thing up. And this is the first time I've written. I was going to send you an email but that doesn't seem to be working. So, this form is the right one clearly!

First things first: Thank you. You are such a wonderful writer and a great photographer to boot. It is rare to get the two in one. I am always moved by your writing. Both by what you write about and also the simple elegance of your prose. A treat every time.

The thing which spurs me to finally write is that I am thinking about coming to New Zealand. I feel powerfully drawn, even while I know almost nothing. Tremendous natural beauty speaks to me and that is obviously a big part of the appeal. Plus, wise and lovely people have sometimes wrinkled their brows and looked at me and told me I would love New Zealand.

I am in one of those moments of transition: I was recently a Zen monk in France and have left monastic life, at leats for now. I have a tiny bit of money and nowhere I need to be. AND I have great big notion to disappear in a creative and healthy way, into unknown lands where I might write the next chapter of my life.

So. I ask a big favour of you - to make some concrete suggestions about traveling to NZ....with a backback, some good hiking shoes and an intention to hitch-hike and sit on beaches and walk mountain tracks and be in simple magic as often as possible.

My email is youngjohn07@gmail.com and my own very episodic and peripatetic blog is www.livingdharma.wordpress.com

That's it for now....sorry for the wordiness...and, truly, thank you.


pohanginapete said...

John, thank you for those generous comments, and particularly for following the blog for so long — that alone is hugely encouraging.

Aotearoa/New Zealand really is an inspirational place (it has problems, of course, but the compensations are wonderful). Today I'm rushing to attend to many important and urgent things, but I'll email you soon.

I'll look forward to meeting you in person.


Anonymous said...

SO very sad..... When I heard about this I immediately thought back to a song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". My dad used to work on the iron ore freighters on Lake Superior. On Nov 10, 1975 the bells tolled for the 29 men lost on that day. The wrath of mother nature. 29 men lost in the Pike River Coal Mine... seems to be a familiar story. --Maureen

pohanginapete said...

Maureen, that song seems so appropriate, despite the different circumstances. I'd forgotten the number was the same, though — 29. Twenty-nine too many.

The mine is now burning and the possibility of recovering anything at all of the men seems remote. Attempts will be made shortly to smother the fire, but it may be a long time before the mine cools enough to allow anyone in.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

ok - so i saw about this in the news, but for whatever reason it never clicked to make the connection about it maybe being near you.

Sometimes its hard to feel association with things happening on TV - i think the constant barrage of it all can desensitise

So i want to thank you for humanising it again - it realy brought it home

I don't think nature is malevolent - i think that in our very protected world we just tend to forget that nature cares no more for humans than it does for any other animal - and that nature is wild

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, that desensitisation seems to be very real. I've been appalled to hear movie audiences (mostly much younger than me) laughing hilariously at the depiction of someone being beaten to a pulp. Yes, of course they know it's not "real". But still... I guess it's so common now, they're inured to it. So what's the result of the ubiquitous, nightly depiction of true tragedies on the TV news?

Yes, of course nature has no malice, even if it sometimes seems that way. But that's the point — sometimes it requires an effort of reasoning to believe that, and our natural tendency to ascribe motive or intention tells us something about ourselves.

Thanks for the thoughts :^)

bev said...

When I hear of such news, I always think of the families and friends who will never see their loved ones again. I well know how that feels. I also know how quickly the world will march on, preoccupied with the next major disaster. But for the families and friends who are left behind, the end is only the beginning.
How terrible about the timing of that third explosion. Yes, I agree. Enough.
Just read through the past few posts while catching up on my favourite blogs. This autumn, I was on the road almost two months with just the occasional net connection. Interesting post on procrastination. In the past, I was not really much for procrastinating. In fact, I'm a bit OCD, so I tend to want to start right onto things as soon as possible. However, since Don's death, that has all changed. Now, I am strangely indifferent to time and deadlines. It's as if none of this is important or matters. Obviously, I have become a bad influence. (-:

pohanginapete said...

Bev, that's so true about the speed with which tragic events like this are supplanted. For a week or so our TV channels in particular saturated the news with everything they could find, no matter how tenuous or insubstantial the connection with the incident itself. Now, it hasn't disappeared completely, but the focus is shifting and the coverage has dropped away.

   Interesting, also, your comment about how your attitude to time and deadlines has changed. In the New Yorker article, Surowiecki points out how some researchers think the deep root of procrastination amounts to a perception — or perhaps understanding — that few tasks are really as important as we think. I'm inclined to agree. Doing what's truly important seems, well, more important than getting a lot of ostensibly important things done.

   Thanks for the thoughts, Bev.

Lydia said...

Your post is the best expression I've read about the emotions we feel when these mines blow. There is something so ungodly about dying by fire under ground. No wonder the success story of the Columbian miners brought such global joy, a rare thing indeed.

I can't stand to think of what it does to the families, especially since seeing the video report showing the weeping young son of one of the Columbian miners racing into his dad's arms when he was brought out from the potential tomb.

In the early 1980s my best friend from high school had gotten what seemed like a plumb job as the PR person for Emery Mining Corp. Then, in 1984, their mine in Orangeville, Utah, exploded, killing 27. For days afterward I watched my friend speak on behalf of the mine in front of the press. On CNN Headline News I could see him every half-hour, if I could have stood to watch him defend his employer. He left that job sometime relatively soon afterward and has done exceedingly well in the years since. But there is a crack in his veneer that shows a place of mourning still.....

I will return to catch up on your posts I have missed. And, hey, aren't the comments from John so very fine? His compliments are well-deserved, Pete. Your blog has given me a love for NZ that I cannot quite understand, but I am grateful for.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thank you. The thought of dying the way the Pike River men died fills me with horror — I can imagine few ways worse. Like you, the thought of what that knowledge must be like for the families is too terrible for me to imagine; all I can do is trust they'll somehow find some consolation, however remote that possibility might seem.

John's comments are indeed a delight — but so are those from so many of those who comment here, including you. I'm lucky to have such excellent encouragement :^)

If you ever get to NZ, you must call in. I can show you some of the reasons I'm so grateful I live here.