By Roger Childs

What happens when company bosses put investor interests, dishonest advertising and their own reputations ahead of thorough research, meticulous planning and worker safety in a risky industry? People die. Rebecca Macfie’s Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died is a superb piece of investigative writing and points the finger straight at Peter Whittall and the company. If ever there was case for a charge of corporate manslaughter, this is it. 

It’s now 10 years since the disaster and there are many widows, and 21 children without fathers. Today, 19 November the families have visited the Pike River memorial to pay tribute to their lost husbands, fathers and sons.

 Pike River remembered

It came with a powerful blast of pressure and a flash of white light that lit up the tunnel. –Rebecca Macfie

Prior to 19 November 2010 the vast majority of New Zealanders would not have known where Pike River was. Today everybody knows, and that obscure area in the Paparoa Range on the West Coast, is now synonymous with death, tragedy and a mining venture doomed to failure.

A total of 29 men died at Pike River in New Zealand’s third biggest mining disaster. The worst was also in the Paparoa Range at Brunner in 1896 where 65 men and boys were killed by an explosion similar to Pike. However a key difference between the two tragedies is that at Brunner all the bodies were recovered. An earlier government decision not to go back into the Pike River mine was overturned in 2017 and currently there is work going on in the shafts to see if there are any remains of the dead miners.

Excellent credentials to tell the grim story

Rebecca Macfie has spent decades as a journalist and writer. She has specialised in economic and business topics, but not exclusively, and has won more than a dozen media awards.

Her expertise in understanding the business world was invaluable in unravelling the corporate shenanigans of Pike River Coal Ltd and its parent company New Zealand Oil and Gas. Furthermore her impressive knowledge of the intricacies of the coal industry was crucial in providing this penetrating analysis of an inevitable disaster.

The outcome is that Rebecca Macfie has produced a fine pieces of investigative writing.To assist the reader’s understanding of the tragedy, the book has plenty of diagrams and photographs, a detailed map, an excellent glossary and index, details on the key individuals involved, as well as a year by year summary of key events.

Not a lot of people knew that

The saddest thing about the Pike River Mining Disaster is that it was virtually certain that a massive explosion would occur at some point and kill everyone underground. There were so many warnings from experts that all was not well.

  • The geologists who said, that the not enough test drilling had been done or sufficient research and analysis carried out on the complexities of the environment and the extent of the coal resources.
  • The many mining engineers and other experts who pointed out the flaws in the untested machinery, ventilation shaft and emergency exit, and the lack of safety provisions.
  • The miners themselves who reported many incidents of safety issues, machinery malfunctions, methane levels over the limit and actual fires.
  • The large number of experienced senior staff who resigned because their advice about what needed to be done was not heeded.

The chapter headings in Macfie’s analysis testify to impending disaster: Early Warnings / Trouble from the Start / Management Blues / Many Whistles Blowing / Marching to Calamity / Who Will Say Stop?

However, few knew the real story of what was happening underground. Visitors who went on to the site drove up the new road and saw the modern buildings, the control room with the latest technology and the largely undisturbed landscape.

The development of the Pike Rive Mine was great news for the depressed West Coast and promised to provide a huge injection of investment in the region and increased employment. Pike began to gain a reputation as a showcase development, blessed by visiting ministers of the crown and celebrated for its superior environmental management and modern methods.

Sadly, the positive publicity for the investors and the above ground modern facade, tragically concealed persistent, and largely unresolved problems, under the ground.

Peter Whittall: blood on his hands?

Australian Peter Whittall was Pike River’s first employee as general manager mines. He was hired in 2005 and was the leading figure in the development of the mine and ended up as chief executive.

Macfie emphasizes that Whittall was obsessed with painting a rosy picture of the mine’s development and its production potential. Announcements to investors and the business press, invariably exaggerated the progress underground and the amount of coal that would soon be exported to China, India and elsewhere.

Justice Mahon’s memorable summary of Air New Zealand’s case over the Erebus Disaster an orchestrated litany of lies, could equally apply to the deception of Whittall. Many readers will recall him as the sympathetic company spokesperson fronting on television in late 2010 after the disaster occurred. At that point, few knew that he had ignored the advice and warnings of geologists, engineers, mining inspectors, safety experts, contractors and miners in his headlong pursuit of profits for the company.

Then, after the explosions, he kept on giving the families of the men who had died, false hopes of their chances of survival.

Amazingly, he escaped prosecution in New Zealand and never admitted any guilt. Today he lives in Wollongong where he runs a rest home.

If you haven’t read it, it’s a must

A damning indictment of the failings of Pike River Coal Ltd was delivered by Justice Jane Farish. She summed up the disaster as the health and safety event of this generation … a worse case is hard to imagine. She added that there was a systematic failure of the company to implement and audit its own inadequate safety plans and procedures.

Tragedy At Pike River is a book which every New Zealander should read, as it shows the appalling cost of unfettered, unregulated corporate activity in the modern era. Ten years on there are still lessons to be learnt.