Picture it. It’s a Friday, and after your shift you are headed off on a month-long holiday, far away from the sounds of heavy machinery, pumps, hoses and other underground mining equipment.

This was Daniel Rockhouse’s mindset as he entered New Zealand’s Pike River coal mine on the morning of November 19, 2010.

The shift started like any other. Mr Rockhouse put on all his gear and headed underground to begin the day’s activities.

“I had just jumped off my loader, lifted my earmuffs off my ears and that’s when I heard the explosion,” Mr Rockhouse said.

The next few minutes were crucial, and although he was scared for his life and the lives of his fellow colleagues, Mr Rockhouse knew he had to act quick.

“The noise was like a bomb exploding and lasted for a few seconds, then I remember silence,” he said. “The force was like a wind blast and it knocked me off my feet. Two seconds later I was just engulfed with a thick white smoke and it was like inhaling burning diesel to the point where I was gagging and my eyes were watering and burning.”

Beginning to choke, Mr Rockhouse told National Mining Chronicle he got up and ran to the main roadway before falling unconscious.

Coming to, he slowly made his way out of the mine, picking up and dragging his incoherent and semi-conscious colleague Russell Smith to safety.

Mr Rockhouse and Mr Smith were the only ones to survive the disaster. Twenty-nine men, including Mr Rockhouse’s brother Ben, lost their lives. To this day, their bodies have not been recovered and remain in the collapsed coal mine, 45km northeast of Greymouth, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

What happened?

Although the coal company’s management believed its methods, using modern technology, were both safer and more efficient than those used in the past, the explosion bore a tragic resemblance to previous coal-mine explosions.

On October 30, 2012, a Royal Commission handed the Governor General Sir Jerry Mateparae the findings of its inquest into the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy, marking the 12th commission of inquiry into a coal-mining disaster in New Zealand in the past 130 years.

The commission was established in December 2010 to report on what happened and what should be done to prevent future tragedies.

The findings confirmed that on November 19, 2010 at 3.45pm, the mine exploded killing 29 men underground immediately or shortly afterwards from the blast or from the toxic atmosphere.
Over the next nine days the mine exploded three more times before it was sealed.

The commission was satisfied the immediate cause of the first explosion was the ignition of a substantial volume of methane gas.

The commission confirmed the owner, Pike River Coal, had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal, defining its health and safety systems as inadequate.

It found Pike’s ventilation and methane drainage systems could not cope with everything the company was trying to do, for example, driving roadways through coal, drilling ahead in the coal seam and extracting coal by hydro mining, a method that is well-known to produce large quantities of methane.

The commission found for months prior to the incident, reports were made by underground deputies and workers about excessive levels of methane within the mine itself.

It also found that in the last 48 hours before the explosion there were 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes, and 27 reports of lesser, but potentially dangerous, volumes. Reports of excessive methane continued up to the morning of the tragedy and were not heeded.

Responsibility anger

The Royal Commission determined there was “a culture of production before safety” at Pike River mine and “numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe” were ignored. The mine did not meet basic safety standards; it had inadequate ventilation and methane gas monitoring, and had no emergency exit.

Despite these findings, no-one has been held responsible for the disaster. Pike River Coal was found guilty in 2013 on nine charges of breaching safety standards, including failing to take all steps to prevent employees coming to harm.

Former CEO Peter Whittall was the only individual charged, but the 12 charges did not proceed. As part of the agreement to drop them, Whittall’s insurer paid $3.41 million to go to victims’ families and the two survivors.

Mr Rockhouse holds his own opinion as to who and what was responsible for the disaster, claiming it can’t be denied the company was “cutting that many corners” when it came to the site.
He is personally appalled that still to this day no individual has been officially held accountable.

“That’s the hardest thing. No-one has said ‘hey, I’ve stuffed up here’,” Mr Rockhouse said. “It was a massive wake-up call for New Zealand in general, not just its mining industry.”

Since working underground at various companies in Australia, Mr Rockhouse said he had nothing but praise for the regulation and protocol currently in place within its industry practices.

“You can just tell the little differences – everything is protocol, procedures, paperwork – if it unsafe, generally you don’t do it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the Australian mining industry is perfect, it still needs changes, it still needs to get better.”

Moving on

Nearly seven years on, Mr Rockhouse still struggles to come to terms with just how lucky he was on that fateful day.

Diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, Mr Rockhouse told National Mining Chronicle he regularly attended counselling to manage his nightmares and ongoing thoughts about his brother Ben.

After the explosion, Mr Rockhouse took a few months off before relocating to Australia and returning underground at Peabody’s North Goonyella coal mine in the Bowen Basin, Queensland.
Mr Rockhouse survived yet another near-death experience less than a year later at the North Goonyella mine.

A 15m section of roof caved in after an old support had deteriorated. A total of 90 underground miners were evacuated safely from the area and all were accounted for.

While many people in both Mr Rockhouse’s personal and professional life think he is crazy to return to a career in underground mining, he said his decision to keep at it was a measured one.

“Before Pike blew up I enjoyed mining. I just refuse to back down to it and I refused to let it win,” he said. “If I never went back underground, I could go do another job working in construction or machine operating and get hurt in that, so the danger is always going to be there, but I suppose it is how you assess that danger and how you manage it.”

Mr Rockhouse’s family, who reside in NZ, and his fiancee Tammy, remind themselves each day just how lucky he is.

Picture: A methane gas blast killed 29 men at New Zealand’s Pike River coal mine in 2010. Supplied.