NZ Hope Turns to Anger for Families

In Australasia, News Headlines

There have been outbursts of grief and anger as the families of the 29 men who perished in the New Zealand mine disaster ask why more was not done to save their loved ones.

Anger in reaction to news of a second devastating blast this afternoon was directed at police, and things were on the verge of “turning ugly” during a private briefing for relatives.

One grieving father says heads should roll if it is found emergency crews could have acted sooner and saved their sons soon after the drama began unfolding on Friday.

The second blast ripped through the Pike River Mine around 2:30pm local time today, leaving authorities certain that the 29 miners trapped underground would have died.

For five days rescuers had been trying to reach them, but their efforts were continuously held back because authorities said the risk of poisonous gases and further explosions was too high to send them into the mine.

But families are demanding to know if there were earlier opportunities to launch a rescue bid, and if so, why this was not done.

New Zealand prime minister John Key has also signalled his cabinet is likely to set up an inquiry into the disaster on Monday.

Lawrie Drew’s 21-year-old son, Zen, is among those who died in the disaster.

Mr Drew says families were inconsolable when they were told of the second explosion at a briefing this afternoon.

“They started the meeting off quietly, then everybody clapped and then we got this bombshell and people just erupted,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for the strong plain-clothes police and other police I think it could have got ugly.”

Mr Drew says families thought they were about to get some good news.

“Well, we thought they were going in for a rescue mobilisation and we got told to hush up and then they told us a second explosion took place,” he said.

“That’s when people got up and started yelling abuse, saying ‘you had the window of opportunity five days ago, why didn’t you take it?’.”

Mr Drew is calling for a Royal Commission into the deaths of his son and the other men.

“Coroners’ reports – if they prove anyone was alive after that first blast, more heads are going to roll,” he said.

“There should be a Royal inquiry, not a local inquiry from our New Zealand people. It’s got to come from overseas from top people that know what they’re doing.”

Anger at police

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn spoke to the media shortly after today’s blast.

He said the news of a second explosion was devastating.

“[Pike River Mine chief executive] Peter Whittall came in and he said: ‘We’ve got some bad news. There’s been a massive explosion. It was an explosion they wouldn’t have survived’,” Mr Kokshoorn said.

“Well at the point, everyone just fell apart. That’s understandable.”

He added that some of the families were angry with police.

“There was some anger directed at the police. Certainly not at Peter Whittall.”

As days wore on since Friday’s explosion, police involved in the search and rescue operation had been forced to defend the mission’s progress.

But authorities had long held the view that they would not endanger the lives of more men by sending a rescue team down the mine shaft when sample testing was still showing high levels of carbon monoxide and methane.

Mr Whittall says authorities had warned that an event like today’s explosion was a possibility.

“Several of the families and a lot of people in this room have continued conference after conference after conference to ask the same question: ‘If the air is clear in the tunnel why don’t you go in?’,” he said.

“The same answer has been given over and over; ‘because it is dangerous, it is hazardous and because the rescue teams would be putting their lives gravely at risk’.”

Hope until the end

Niki Gillespie works at the Royal Hotel at Greymouth and says the community held onto hope until the end.

“We had to hold onto hope because Greymouth is a small community and everyone knows everyone down here and we just had to hold onto something,” she said.

“We thought they would be safe. We thought they would get to an air pocket and with Daniel Rockhouse’s light still going we thought that everything would be OK.”

Ms Gillespie says she knew many people in the mine.

“Ten people I know down there and five very close friends and you just can’t comprehend it. It changes a person for the rest of your life,” she said.

“You’ve got to have people there you love to get you through.”

The task of breaking the grim news to family members fell to Mr Whittall.

“I fronted the families by myself and gave them the news. It was hard, obviously,” he said.

“They’ve looked to me for hope and they’ve looked to me keeping them informed and to let them know what’s going on, which I’ve tried to do as factually and clearly as I could right the way through.”

Mr Whittall says recovering the bodies is on everybody’s mind, but even if it is possible, the utmost care will be needed.

“We can’t still go into an unsafe mine. It’s just as unsafe as it was two hours ago. The gas will still be coming out of the coal and there’s still an ignition source,” he said.

“There’s no doubt still burning methane from that explosion, but we want our boys back and we want to get them out.”

Two Australians, William Joynson, 49, and Joshua Ufer, 25, were among those killed in the disaster.

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