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