As the Pike River Mine tragedy unfolded, the pendulum of hope of the families, friends and the nation swung between hope and despair.
For five long days, every second passed like a minute, a minute like an hour and an hour like a day and a day like a year.
The whole nation was transfixed to the TV and radio stations hoping for the best result but not discarding the attendant despair. And when the news spread, the nation wept. The best in humanity comes in the worst of times, more so, when tragedy involves multiple deaths. The nation united in mourning at its darkest hour.
Somehow, the gravity of the tragedy did not register in us during the early days.
Thirty-three Chilean miners, trapped for 68 days were safely rescued on October 12, 2010 and that feat was taken as if it also applied to those who were trapped in the Pike River Mine.
Gradually, the gravity of the Pike River Mine tragedy began to unfold and the second blast on November 24, 2010 sealed the fate of the trapped miners, forcing the officials to switch from rescue to recovery mode.
The grim announcement that the twenty-nine miners were dead rocked the nation and the ripples of the shock cast a pall of mourning that paled the nation.
Even the recovery operation had elements of danger and further delays were inevitable. The Pike River Mine is a veritable repository of toxic gases that posed grave threat to recovery efforts.
Sadly, it prolonged the pain and anguish of the families, friends and the nation.
What we must avoid is further tragedy.
The rescue team stood strong and firm to answer the command but it was humanly impossible to attain their objectives; and that command could never be issued.
It is now clear that if the risk had been taken, it would have only compounded the tragedy. Many more lives would have been lost.
High Risk Job
Indeed, mining is a high-risk occupation, well known to those who choose to go underground. The shadow of uncertainty hangs perennially over the lives of the miners. As they enter the mines, it is insecure, different and a difficult environment.
They are reconciled with one maxim, “expect the worst and hope for the best.”
Mining history across the world is littered with tragedies but the quest for wealth draws people to peck into the rocks for that elusive mineral.
The onus lies on Governments to ensure that mining companies adapt best practices and not cut corners, risking the lives of their employees.
New Zealand is a relatively small country and therefore, the pain of this tragedy becomes even greater to be shared among fewer people. We did not know what our response would be but when the dreaded news was confirmed, we as a family had nothing to offer except our tears.
It still hurts and will continue to because it is indelibly etched in our minds.
We also deeply feel for the families, the Police and the mineworkers, whose colleagues perished in the tragedy. The worldwide response has shown that it is not the size of a nation but the size of the tragedy that draws rapid international response to ease the pain and suffering. We are grateful for this and hope that it is not often that we seek or are offered such assistance.
Pike River Mine CEO Peter Whittall handled a delicate situation with compassion and consideration. He was seen as the voice of reason, carrying on his head the hope and despair of a nation with tact and diplomacy that earned him respect and admiration from everyone.
Police Superintendent Gary Knowles did not allow emotions to overwhelm him and retained his professional integrity. One of the Australian news reporters called him a ‘Country Cop’, questioning his right to lead a tragedy of such magnitude. It was a sad commentary but the Australian news reporter should be forgiven because he merely reflected the low public rating of Australian Police where they need the State Police Commissioners to front up on such occasions to allay public fears of Police failures and mistrust.
The Government response has been appropriate and relevant. It did not indulge in the frivolities but showed genuine concern for the victims and stood by the victims in the hour of their greatest need.
Prime Minister John Key emerged as a caring and compassionate leader, who matched his words with action, appointing a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the tragedy.
Like the diggers at the mine, the Royal Commission will dig for information to discover the causes for the tragedy and apportion the blame, suggesting safety messages that prevent such a tragedy revisiting our lives.
However, it will be of little comfort to the families of the victims who would have to live with the memories forever.
Nation at standstill
Indeed, the memorial service held on December 2 brought the nation to a standstill. Millions of people stood in silence for two minutes at 2 pm on that day, as a mark of respect for the victims of tragedy.
We shared the grief of the families and reassured them that we stood by them in this tragedy. It united the nation in grief like none other event in recent history and it is hoped that this tragedy will make us a more caring and compassionate nation.
Photographs for Indian Newslink by Dr George Abraham, Christchurch