For nearly a week we’ve been living in hope that the 29 miners trapped in the Pike River coalmine on the South Island’s West Coast had survived the gas explosion and could be rescued. A second gas explosion this afternoon has dashed that hope.
Wednesday 24th November 2010
It now seems likely that the Pike River Coalmine explosions of November 19th and 24th 2010 will join the thankfully short list of natural disasters that have claimed significant numbers of lives in New Zealand.
Since the gas explosion at the mine last Friday afternoon, many of us have been on tenterhooks, hoping that some or all of the miners had survived and could be rescued. Since then the fluctuating gas levels in the mine have prevented rescuers entering the labyrinth of tunnels to look for survivors as the days have passed. News reports earlier today indicated that the methane gas levels might finally have been dropping, but this suddenly changed during the afternoon.
At 2:27 this afternoon a second gas explosion ripped through the mine, and officials consider that this second explosion was not survivable.
The possible loss of a loved one is always tragic, made more painful by the grueling passage of days waiting for news. When this happens 29 times over after a significant event, even those of us not directly involved feel the loss. With a second explosion having dashed the hope of survival at Pike River, the enormity of the event has been brought into sharp focus. It is most keenly felt in Greymouth and surrounding towns, but also in Australia, South Africa and Britain, where some of the lost miners have family.
Beyond the family members directly affected by this tragedy are the emergency service workers and the rescue teams who have been keen to enter the mine to look for survivors as soon as the risky conditions abated. The management, especially Peter Whittall, and police have faced an equally daunting time facing up to the media to keep us informed while also doing the more important job of preparing for a rescue mission as soon as it was possible and safe.
The cold hand of fate can touch us through many events, some known as natural disasters, where the wild nature of the New Zealand environment takes from us our nearest and dearest. Despite our fancy technologies and the fact that we live on a planet which is largely benign, sometimes its natural processes show scant regard for our presence and we get caught up in events that are bigger than us.
Pike River now joins the list of some of the more notable natural disasters from New Zealand’s recent history which spring to mind. These events have touched our families and communities with glancing blows, near misses, or direct hits. They are:
1886 Mt. Tarawera, eruption, more than 120 deaths
1924, s.s. Ripple, southerly storm, 16 deaths
1929, Buller (Murchison) earthquake and landslides, 17 deaths
1931, Hawke’s Bay earthquake and firestorm, 256 deaths
1953, Tangiwai Bridge, Ruapehu, volcanic lahar, 151 deaths
1967, Strongman Mine, explosion, 19 deaths
1968, m.v. Wahine, Cyclone Giselle, 51 deaths
And now, it seems, we must add
2010, Pike River Coalmine, explosion, 29 deaths
There have been other prominent tragedies such as the sinking of the s.s. Penguin in 1909 with the loss of 72 lives and the crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 on Mt. Erebus in Antarctica in 1979 which claimed 257 lives. But, while natural phenomena played a part in these events, it is not clear that these were totally natural disasters.
The tragedy at the Pike River Coalmine is still playing out and families are only just coming to terms with their losses. Many of us understand their distress, and they are much in our thoughts.