Joanne holds her baby granddaughter Erika, whose father, Josh, was one of the 29 miners killed in the Pike River mine explosion.
Joanne holds her baby granddaughter Erika, whose father, Josh, was one of the 29 miners killed in the Pike River mine explosion.

Mum wants answers

WHEN Joanne Ufer was told the pile of rags buried in Pike River’s doomed mine shaft was actually a human body, her blood ran cold.

That grainy image could be the last photo she ever sees of her son, Josh, one of the 29 entombed miners at New Zealand’s killer coal mine shaft.

Every day Joanne wrestles with the knowledge she encouraged Josh to take the underground mining position across the Tasman and every moment since November 19, she has been plagued by an intense mother’s guilt.

“It’s hard to say how you do it, but you keep pushing on,” Joanne said, speaking candidly about life since the fatal mine explosion.

“When the coronial inquest in January said they all would have died within seconds to minutes of the first blast, we were led to believe there would have been very little chance of retrieval.

“But to show months later there was a body... well, we weren’t prepared.”

It was a heartbreaking reality to accept her son would never return home, buried 2km underground with his co-workers, and she questioned why the

tragedy happened.

Now, Joanne must wait for phase two of the commission to answer the questions of why the mine was permitted to operate when it didn’t meet basic safety requirements.

“I think it’s probably one of the most dangerous professions there could be,” Joanne said. “You’re working underground, you’ve got gases and coal that can ignite quickly, but if you follow the rules and regulations, you’ll be as safe as can be.”

The Royal Commission heard of inept safety measures, particularly a fresh air base where survivors of an explosion at the mine were meant to gather and wait for rescue.

It was only big enough for 20 men.

The site’s own geologist, Dr Jane Newman, told her husband not to go underground after an inspection revealed it was unstable.

“The revelations that have come out from every witness they’ve put on the stand have been a bit shocking,” Joanne said.

“The mine managers had to say the New Zealand safety standard is lacking and basically they abolished the check inspectors back in the late 1990s, over a decade ago and they were both adamant that system should be in place.”

New Zealand media reported Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall maintained his submission to the inquiry which stated the nation’s mine safety standards were inadequate and in need of wide-ranging review and revision.

The victims’ families were told the commission’s first stage was meant to set the scene of the mine, detailing the financial and safety background of the site.

The next phase, Joanne said, was “going to be quite revealing”.

“I’m worried about what it’s going to bring to the surface,” she said.

“It will be on a more personal level and the families are going to be more interested in what is said because everyone has their own ideas and the window of time the Mines Rescue team could have entered.

“It’s probably going to involve the families more because it’s all about things from that day on. It’s more personal.”

She likened the role of Mines Rescue teams to that of firefighters responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Firies went into the building because that’s what they’re trained to do,” she said. “Whether they could or couldn’t, that’s what is going to come out of phase two.”

Gas levels at the mine shaft are expected to stabilise within the next fortnight, allowing retrieval teams the chance to extend the 140m recovery attempt.

“A lot of people come up to me and say it’s all over, but this is just the start,” Joanne said.

“I still want them to get in there because the truth won’t come out unless they get in there.”

Phase two of the Royal Commission begins on September 5 in Greymouth.

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