Documenting Disaster:
Tragedy at Pike River Mine

ARTS, Books
img_tragedyatpikeriverOn Rebecca Macfie’s eye-opening account of the Pike River Mine tragedy and her recent discussion of the book at New Zealand Festival Writers Week.

Rebecca Macfie’s Tragedy at Pike River Mine (Awa Press, NZ$40) was launched in Greymouth last November, at the memorial site which was erected near the turn-off site to the mine’s access road. Attendees included family members of the 29 men lost in the incident as well as other members of the close-knit Westland Community. The launch came just a few days before the third anniversary of the first explosion at Pike River, an event that traumatised the local community and shocked the country. While the catastrophe has since left an indelible impression on the national psyche, Macfie offers a comprehensive account of what actually led up to the tragedy; something that has been painfully lacking since the disaster. To the reporters who were present, members of the miners’ families expressed a grim satisfaction that the circumstances leading up to the tragedy have finally been told to the public.

Macfie herself has said that she wanted to write the book in order to understand what went wrong. A respected journalist with 25 years experience, Macfie incorporates extensive research, interviews with over 100 people, and evidence from the Royal Commission to create a spare and compelling narrative.

While what happened to cause the explosion can only be theorised, Macfie outlines the culture of production over safety at Pike River that made it possible. It is a meticulously researched and powerful example of investigative journalism, which exposes the entrenched mismanagement and miscommunication at Pike River that made such a tragedy not only possible but inevitable.

The subheading of Macfie’s book is “How and why 29 men died.” This is very much the driving force of the book. She describes them as: “[the men] who went underground everyday to earn a living and who were entitled to the protection of robust safety systems and equipment that left a fat margin of error.” She reveals the disparity between the public image that Pike maintained before the disaster and the reality at the mine site: “Pike River mine, which needed to have the best of everything to succeed in its tough environment—the best geological knowledge, the best equipment, the most rigorous safety regime—had the worst of everything.” Macfie carefully outlines the mismanagement that plagued Pike River Coal Ltd from its conception—from inadequate geological surveys and mechanical failures, to the lack of training and casual attitudes towards safety protocols. The result is a forceful and gripping account of a company that betrayed its workers by ignoring staggering risks to health and safety.

Tragedy at Pike River Mine walks a line between contextualising mining procedures and industry safety measures while also maintaining a narrative that remains accessible. She takes complex issues and historical threads and combines them into a coherent and universal narrative. Tragedy at Pike River Mine does not just document an isolated event, but an endemic failure of the systems in place to protect people. Macfie criticises the culture that prioritises profit and production above all else, and the failure of management to adhere to health and safety regulations. It is an extremely necessary piece of writing, and particularly relevant considering the recent decision to drop the charges against Peter Whittall, the only senior executive of Pike Coal to have any charges laid against him.

It is a book about the failure to disclose information, and the huge ramifications of these omissions. When Macfie appeared at the New Zealand Festival Writers Week recently, the first revelation was that Macfie and Cate Brett, who led the discussion in Wellington’s Embassy theatre, are close friends. Indeed, Macfie wrote portions of Tragedy at Pike River Mine while bundled in blankets in Brett’s living room, while she was waiting for her own home to be repaired from earthquake damage. Brett is the former editor of the Sunday Star-Times, and her comfortable rapport with Macfie made for a lively and intimate discussion. This was particularly appreciated given the early hour of the proceedings. As Brett noted, where else but Wellington would there be a crowd for a current affairs session at 9am on a Saturday? For those of us who did it was very much worth it.

Macfie described how her own experiences with the Christchurch earthquake became entwined with her writing the book on Pike. She noted her own trepidation in dealing with a tragedy of such extraordinary gravity; however, her experience as a journalist informed her hunch that events like this can only happen due to the failure of systems, rather than individual and isolated error. She described what she uncovered as “not a march to disaster but a sprint.” The coal seam had only just been scratched and their hydraulic mining system (their main means for production) had only been operational for a few weeks when the mine exploded.

Macfie described her research as “examining the corporate entrails.” The title of the session “Documenting Disaster” not only refers to Macfie’s role as a journalist, but the series of reports and documentation that she sifted through while she pieced together the events. Although there is evidence of concerns about the safety of Pike, there was never any real action taken as a result of these reports. Also, because the Public Information Act does not cover the corporate world, these concerns were not widely known until it was too late. Brett and Macfie discussed the experience of writing in a litigious environment, and how the book succeeds in juxtaposes what was actually happening on a ground level with the corporate story, while shrewdly offering very little comment.

Macfie did express to the audience that she didn’t think she ever would accept that only Whithall was charged and that those charges were dropped. She added that she is now bracing for a similar outcome for the CTV building in Christchurch, saying that the parallels are startling. Macfie said that while tighter regulations would help similar situations, “as long as you have companies willing to buy into their own bullshit brand and corporate managers who lack technical understanding of their own area, it will happen again.”

When the session was opened to the audience, the most memorable comments came from a man who had worked in mines for 11 years, who reinforced the point that the systems that failed to prevent 29 deaths are still in place. This session was compelling and eye-opening, and exposed some fundamental flaws in our treatment of disasters as a country, while also remembering the ordinary people whose lives are altered by these events.