24 November 2010

Pike River

The last few days have been incredibly difficult. I haven't been able to blog for a number of reasons, but tonight I have to.

On Friday there was a gas explosion at the Pike River Coal mine. Two miners were able to escape by some miracle, and one dragged the other over 800m up the 2.2km-long entrance shaft to the entrance to safety. 29 other miners were trapped.

New Zealand watched with horror and heartache as the rescuers tried to stabilise the situation enough to send in rescue teams: essentially it was one giant confined space entry, as the main shaft is 2.2km long, and about 3km underground. The main shaft then opens out into a network of tunnels that pierce over 3km into the side of the hill. It's really remote country on the West Coast and access is very difficult. They couldn't get good gas readings (my suspicion is that the gas monitoring equipment built into the mine was damaged in the initial explosion), and using breathing apparatus wouldn't have worked either as rebreathers would have been out of the question due to the gases, and tanks wouldn't last long enough. They were drilling down to get other readings and try to get a team in today (6 days later).

When the probe got in today they found that it was very hot and that there was a huge amount of methane in there, suggesting that the coal seam may be on fire. Then this afternoon, there was a second explosion, and the announcement was made that it was not survivable. All of the 29 missing men were presumed dead.

One of my friends/safety colleagues is the safety manager at Pike River. His oldest son was the hero who dragged out the other man, but unfortunately his younger son was also in there and is now dead. It is so awful. 29 men, 29 families and their friends, torn apart. A community smashed up. A country grieving. Almost everyone knows someone who knows someone - NZ isn't that big.

It's doubly awful as a safety professional as this is the kind of thing that I'm trained to try to prevent, and now of course we have to ask the difficult questions about why it happened. But right now, I'm dealing with the pain, the grief, and the hurt of my friends. I can only take it to where I always take it. 'As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for your rod and your staff, they comfort me.' May God be their comfort.

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