3 Oct 2019

Pike River re-entry: Families get closer to men they lost

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 3 October 2019

Pike River families have stood for the first time at the wall that separates them from the men they lost in the coal mine nine years ago.

About 30 family members took it in turns to travel the dark, wet 170-metre rock tunnel to where the mine was sealed shortly after the disaster that killed 29 men.

Anna Obsorne and Sonya Rockhouse have led the fight to re-enter the mine and on Thursday, they took the next step together.

Anna is battling lymphoma and said the visit will give her strength as she starts stem cell treatment.

As they put their hands on the seal, Anna said she could almost feel her husband Milton's presence.

“I just said to him we haven't forgotten.  We're coming for him. I want justice and accountability and I want our men to know they're not going to be forgotten.”

Sonya left a small bouquet of garden flowers. She said was thinking of her son Ben who died but also her two other boys.

Her older son Matthew made the journey, and Daniel, a Pike River survivor was there too, back from Australia to accompany his mum.

It is the furthest he's been into the mine since it almost took his life nine years ago.

“He's huge part of this, he has survivor’s guilt, it's a difficult day for him,” she says.

Like all the family members, the women followed strict safety protocols - but not before given every one of the mine workers a hug.

They put on personal rescue packs that contain half an hour of oxygen, hard hats and high vis.

Together they hung their name tags on the same board where the men had hung theirs nine years ago.

Then the drift runner - a short, open topped little truck - drove them backwards up the drift so they could come out fast if they needed to.

Sonya says it gave her an appreciation of the work being done.

“It’s really, really cold up there and they are working in that every day."

Like several others, Barbara and Brian Nieper, whose son Kane died, brought a small piece of rock out with them.

Barbara says she felt numb and a little empty.  The pair had a message for Kane

"The worst part is the last nine years is we didn't get a chance to be able to help him… We said sorry that we couldn't be there."

Like the Niepers, many families are already looking past Thursday's emotional milestone, to when the seal can be breached.

And from Sonya there is an air of defiance after the previous government said even going this far was too dangerous.

"To all the knockers who said it couldn't be done, hello, it's been done, so for me there is some satisfaction in that as well."

And exactly when workers can go beyond the seal is now in the hands of WorkSafe, which has to approve the plans before anything else can happen.