Few nerves for Pike River author

Award winning journalist Rebecca Macfie admits to a few nerves around the release of her book Tragedy at Pike River Mine: how and why 29 men died.

“The pool of grief is very large on the West Coast, not only for the families but all the guys who worked at the mine. I sense every time the scab is taken off the Pike story it creates a renewed round of pain and grief for these people.”

Macfie says the book, her first, is the best work of her long, successful career.

However the Christchurch writer adds that researching and writing it is one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

“It was the sort of experience you might have only once in a lifetime – interesting, moving, harrowing, and at the same time utterly enraging,” she said in a recent media release. “This was a disaster that should never have happened.”

Macfie took leave without pay from her job as senior feature writer at the New Zealand Listener to write Tragedy at Pike River Mine, in the “window” between the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster, and the trial of former mine boss Peter Whittall, which will commence in early 2014.

Her involvement with Pike goes back to the days immediately following the first explosion at the mine on 19 November 2010, when she was one of the Listener journalists covering the story.

From early on, Macfie was convinced a shocking corporate failure, rather than an accident, had caused New Zealand’s worst mine disaster in over a century.

“The issue that jumped out at me in those first couple of day’s research was the company’s description of the mine having a low to moderate gas seam which made methane gas risk relatively easy to manage. When I started digging around this was obviously not the case. I refused to use the word accident in connection with Pike.”

Macfie wrote several stories about the disaster after that first “terrible week” and says by the beginning of 2011 her feelings of unease remained.

Convinced that corporate failure, combined with regulatory failure, were responsible for the disaster, and concerned about whether the imminent Royal Commission of Inquiry would go far enough, Macfie decamped to the West Coast for a week, to see what she could dig up.

“People were pretty reserved at that point as no one wanted to jeopardise the Royal Commission by speaking with me. However I presumptuously asked some of the questions I thought the Royal Commission would cover and managed to get hold of some details about the production bonus scheme at Pike River that hadn’t come out before. It was one of those clues that I thought would be highly relevant.”

She was also told about unreliable machinery, morale issues, and power outages at Pike River, which featured in her story To get the truth in the Listener in early February.

Soon after this story came out, Macfie was approached by Mary Varnham, director of Awa Press, who asked whether she would be interested in writing a book about the disaster.

“We agreed to speak on the phone at 12.30pm on 22 February 2011. I was still talking to Mary when the earthquake hit.”

Macfie’s home in St Martins was only a kilometre from the epicentre of the February quake which left it in “ruins and chaos”.

The book idea was put on hold while Macfie dealt with her own disaster zone.

In the second half of a “harrowing” 2011, her attention returned to Pike River and the Royal Commission. She sat through most of the hearings in Greymouth and provided online reports for the Listener.

“I was confident my early instincts about Pike River Coal would be proved right by the Royal Commission, but couldn’t have imagined to what staggering degree. Some days I would think, the hearing might be a bit dry today, and we’d get another bombshell. It was hard to comprehend how a company could fail so comprehensively on so many fronts.”

Macfie felt for the shattered families who endured the “intense, tragic” hearings.

“After going through the earthquakes I definitely had a heightened sense of empathy for the Pike families.”

It wasn’t until August 2012 that Macfie finally decided to sign a contract with Awa Press to write the Pike River book.

She was determined not to push the families to talk.

“I went along to a meeting of the families at the beginning of this year to explain the book project and left it open to them. I didn’t approach anyone unless they had made it clear they wanted to be involved.”

Macfie interviewed more than 100 people during her research, including miners, company management, geologists, contractors, Mines Rescue workers, and family members.

“I had fantastic support from a lot of people, particularly Gerry Morris, a West Coaster and former mining journalist who is a great advocate for the book and was my interpreter of the Coast; and former mines inspector Harry Bell, who I could ring with any dumb mining question. He also picked me up on all the tiny technical stuff for the book. Coal mining is a terribly technical business, and the guys who do it are smart, clever men with enormous specialist knowledge. I have a lot of admiration for them.”

She is scathing of the Pike River directors, who all, apart from John Dow and Stuart Nattrass, refused to talk in the wake of the disaster.

“For directors to occupy a position where ultimately their job is to manage the risks of an operation, then walk away and say nothing when disaster happens, is not okay.”

Tragedy at Pike River takes a detailed look at the Pike River company and its shortcomings prior to the disaster and the “appalling string of mistakes” that led to the explosion.

In the book Macfie also discusses the so-called “window of opportunity” for mines rescuers to enter the mine; and the role of the Police in the rescue.

However it is the personal accounts of those who lost loved ones, colleagues and friends that resonate most strongly.

“Even though the topic was so awful, it was a privilege to be able to immerse myself in the work and culture of the people of the West Coast. I’m glad I made the decision to make a contribution to the Pike River story, and hope the book will provide an understanding of how such an avoidable disaster could occur in 21st New Zealand and the lessons we must learn from it.”