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‘Hopefully we’ll find some loved ones’

With the Pike River mine seal about to be broken, Anna Osborne discusses her hopes and fears. David Williams reports.

On November 19, 2010, Milton Osborne kissed wife Anna and said, “Have a good day, hon.” He went into the West Coast’s Pike River mine as a contractor, to lay water pipes, and was one of 29 men who didn’t make it out.

Today, eight-and-a-half years later, workers for a special Government agency are expected to break the concrete seal to the mine access tunnel known as the drift – an angled tunnel driven into the mountainside, like the road tunnel between Lyttelton and Christchurch.

Over the coming weeks and months, they’ll proceed up the tunnel, as conditions allow, towards a rockfall at about the 2.3-kilometre mark, and also, potentially, towards evidence confirming why the mine in the Paparoa National Park exploded. There’s also the possibility of finding the remains of loved ones. (Under the Government plan, there’s no intention to go beyond the rockfall, to the four kilometres of tunnels known as the mine workings, where most of the bodies are thought to be.)

Yesterday afternoon, Anna Osborne was still riding a rollercoaster of emotions. There’s gratitude and trepidation. That’s wrapped in disbelief it’s taken this long – and anger at the lack of accountability.

“I’m feeling really proud, though. Proud that we have come this far and we never gave up and we continue to keep going to see exactly how far we can go.”

She adds: “Hopefully we’ll find some loved ones.”

Anna Osborne lost her husband Milton in the Pike River mine disaster. Photo: David Williams

Osborne is chair of the Family Reference Group, a go-between for the Pike River Recovery Agency, police and the Government that represents 28 of the 31 affected families. (Two men, Russell Smith and Daniel Rockhouse, survived the disaster.)

Sitting in an office at the Pike River Recovery Agency building in central Greymouth yesterday, Osborne’s mind turns to the families’ many battles. She thinks about the Supreme Court decision in 2017 that ruled a WorkSafe NZ decision to drop charges against mine boss Peter Whittall if he paid $3.41 million to the victims was unlawful. “We had lawyers saying you’re going to have to accept it,” she says of the earlier Court of Appeal decision.

The families lobbied concrete companies, asking them not to supply concrete for the permanent seal of the mine. Osborne told them: “If you do that, that’s placing the lid on their coffin permanently.”

Then there was a picket line of the mine access road. “This isn’t finished for us,” Osborne told workers employed to seal the mine. “It may be for you but it’s not for the families – it’s an unexplored crime scene.”

That’s not to mention the initial false hopes of a rescue raised by the mine company, broken promises by Prime Minister John Key that “we’re committed to getting the boys out”, as well as a gruelling royal commission inquiry, and state coal miner taking over Pike River and then going bust.

The re-entry is a massive thing, Osborne says, because “our men were silenced that day”. It’s not OK to just seal the mine without going up the drift and trying to find evidence of what happened, she says. “You can’t do that. These are our loved ones. These are our men.”

“They could have made the difference. They should have made the difference. They could have stopped this but it was production over safety.” – Anna Osborne

This time it’s different.

Previously, the families were shut out of the Pike River operation inner-sanctum – not consulted, left fighting for scraps of information, forcing them to employ their own experts and lobby through the media.

Under the Labour-led coalition Government they’ve got a seat at the top table. An agency staff member is specifically tasked with liaising with the families. They’re briefed at least weekly. Osborne has sat in on job interviews and attended expert workshops.

“Having people so passionate, wanting to work for the families, is huge,” she says. It’s personal for many agency workers, who refer to the 29 men as their “brothers”.

“This is part of our healing is being understood by people. They get us, they get why it’s important to us. They get why we keep fighting, and to be included in this journey with them, instead of being shut out and fed nothing, like we had been in the past. Everything’s pretty darned good now.”

At 5pm yesterday, agency chief executive Dave Gawn confirmed there would be a “low-key and private” re-entry today. He said families will “witness the opening of the double airlock doors and the re-entry team stepping through”. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed she wouldn’t travel to the mine for the re-entry, which she called a “symbolic moment”.

Bernie Monk says a lot of investigation work has to be done after the mine seal is breached. Photo: David Williams

Osborne is grateful to the mine workers and the agency, and elated that someone’s finally going up the drift. But she’s also nervous. “I just want everything to go to plan and I don’t want anyone hurt.”

There are still so many questions. Some of them are rhetorical and unlikely to ever be answered, like “Why did it happen to us?” Another question boils to the surface as anger. Osborne says she’s angry certain people “knew better” than to keep working down that dangerous mine.

“But those are the very people who still go home to their wives and their children and sit round the dinner table at night and have a conversation with their family.

“Well that’s been denied us now. They could have made the difference. They should have made the difference. They could have stopped this but it was production over safety.”

Bernie Monk, whose son Michael was killed at the Pike River mine, says he’s frustrated that similar re-entry plans were proposed in 2011 and 2013 but were shelved. Monk, who quit the Family Reference Group after being asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, says at least the re-entry is happening – and he thanks the coalition Government for keeping its word.

“We’re over the moon but we’ve got a long way to go. There’s a lot of investigation work that’s got to be done.”

Multiple delays

The Government announced its re-entry plan last November, at an emotional press conference at Parliament.

The $36 million plan involves going in the original mine entrance, pumping nitrogen into the mine to displace dangerous methane, before the re-introduction of fresh air. Two other, more costly, plans would have involved drilling either a new tunnel or a large borehole.

(The Pike River Royal Commission said methane levels were in the “explosive range” of more than 5 percent 21 times in the 48 days leading up to the November 19, 2010 explosion. The mine company should have notified the Department of Labour, but didn’t.)

Initially, the Government said it was likely the seal – at the access tunnel’s 30-metre mark – would be breached in February. The next re-entry date, May 3, was aborted after the discovery of unexpected oxygen readings – later revealed to be from a leaky gas monitoring tube.

Osborne says she’s reassured by the competency of the miners, the depth of expert involvement, the agency’s commitment to health and safety. “If they’d been in charge eight-and-a-half years ago this would never have happened.”

Her expectations are that workers at the mine – about 45 kilometres north-east of Greymouth – will be able to reach the rockfall in the access tunnel.

The bridge leading to the Pike River mine entrance. Photo: Getty Images

If they get that far they’ll get to Russell Smith’s loader at the 1.4-kilometre mark. There are four robots in the vicinity.

At 1.8 kilometres in, there’s a large area of roadways and cross cuts called “pit bottom in stone”, home to various underground infrastructure. It’s where Daniel Rockhouse’s loader will be found. The agency calls it “an area of significant forensic interest”. The area beyond 1.8 kilometres, known to contain major debris from the explosions, hasn’t been explored since the disaster.

Osborne hopes evidence can be found in electrical gear at “pit bottom in stone” proving what sparked the first explosion. She says a worker taxi, or “drift runner”, had gone to bring people back from their shift. “That wasn’t far from rockfall.”

As police go down the drift, they’ll be searching for evidence of gear that wasn’t “intrinsically safe to be used”. If such equipment is found, and there’s evidence that someone signed off their use, perhaps someone will be held responsible for their decisions, she says.

Police are taking the operation very seriously, Osborne says. So much so, that they’re flagging with families that there might be information they won’t be able to share, in case it leads to future prosecutions. “Which is totally fine,” she says. “The police acknowledge the fact that they cocked up [the investigation] last time.”

Osborne also hopes some bodies will be found. “I believe that we might find one or two. But we know that the majority of the 29 are beyond the rockfall and the mandate from the Government is only to go up to the rockfall at this stage.”

Not that she wants the re-entry operation to stop there. “I’d love them to actually go into the mine, keep going, and get the men out if they can. That’s something I will forever want. If they can get rid of the human factor and make that possible, I would absolutely love that.”

“We needed the support of not only the Government, but we needed New Zealand.” – Anna Osborne

Osborne lays out her struggles.

Early on, public negativity would knock her confidence so much she wouldn’t want to get out of bed. Social media commentary is often laced with hostility. Like all children who lost their dad at Pike River, it hasn’t been easy for the Osborne children, Robin, who lives in Marlborough, and Alisha, who’s in Timaru.

But Anna Osborne says she’s been buoyed by face-to-face support and messages from strangers.

“We couldn’t have done it without them, as well. We needed everyone. We needed the support of not only the Government, but we needed New Zealand. We’re not going to get all of New Zealand but, hell, we’ve got quite a few people out there that just want this to happen for us.”

Regarding the loss of her husband – “Milt” – she says he was seemingly there one minute and gone the next. “Even if I had Milt’s body back, I don’t think I’ll ever move on from what happened,” she says. “My head knows he’s gone but my heart doesn’t.”

She gives a glimpse of why she hasn’t given up.

“If my husband was a real bastard it would be easy for me to walk away from this. But he wasn’t. He was my darling husband, who I loved. I feel blessed that I had 18 wonderful years but cheated [out of] the rest of my life with him.”

Pike weighs heavily on Osborne. Even when she’s away, the phone calls and emails are constant. When she returns home “it hits you in the face”.

But the thing that turns her tears from welling, which they do often, to flowing, is the sadness that two of Milton’s employees – Terry Kitchen, 41, and Sam Mackie, 26 – were with him in the mine that day. 

“Both families have been so good and said, their men had never been so happy and they loved Milt. They hold no grudges. But for me it’s still hard. We’ve denied – well, I have – denied the kids of ever seeing their fathers again. That still weighs heavy on my mind as well.”

A less public battle for Osborne is with her health.

She spent early yesterday afternoon at Grey Base Hospital discussing her treatment for a rare form of cancer – Hodgkin lymphoma, with traits of the non-Hodgkin as well. It’s her fourth attempt to put it into remission. “It has spread into other parts now,” she says.

But she’s battle-hardened now, right? “Bloody oath,” Osborne says. “I’m going to fight to be here and if Pike’s anything to go by I’m sure I can beat this too.”

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