Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mine with caution: Lives at stake

A miracle was what New Zealanders had sought since the Pike River coal mine blast last Friday. Even Prime Minister John Key was hoping for a miracle.
But 118 hours and 52 minutes after the first blast, a bigger blast shattered any hopes or dreams the New Zealanders had. Many people are just devasted after the second blast on Wednesday.
At the beginning of this week most newspapers carried the words hope and prayer'' in their headlines but yesterday, those changed to mourning and darkest hour.''
The front page of the New Zealand Herald was in black yesterday with the stories and pictures of families crying, while The Dominion Post's front page was in black too, with pictures of all the 29 miners and the headline Our Darkest Hour.''
The TV stations aired live feeds of the twice-daily press conferences since the first disaster and updates every now and then.
The Pike River coal mine blast is a major catastrophe that has gripped the nation. Wherever you go people just want to know the latest and the newspapers and TV stations are running around to provide updates.
You cannot blame people for hoping for a miracle as New Zealand has a population of only 4.5 million people, of whom one million are tourists. This is a country where the sheep population over 45 million far surpasses that of humans.
That aside, getting the miners out alive after the first blast had slim chances of success and as NZ Herald put it in its editorial yesterday: It is unlikely anyone could have survived the second explosion which was bigger than the first and if anyone survived the first blast they would have succumbed to carbon monoxide later.''
This is the second disaster to strike the country since Christchurch was hit with an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1 on Sept 4.
It is also the worst disaster in three decades since 257 people died when an Air New Zealand flight crashed into Mt Erebus in November 1979.
Of the 29 miners who would have been entombed in the 2.5km underground mine, the biggest number were New Zealanders, but there were also British, Australian and South African nationals.
The coal mine operated by Pike River Coal Ltd is said to be the country's largest underground coal mine.
Following this disaster, what's next?
For families who have lost their loved ones, the newspapers are talking about recovery.'' It is not going to be easy for the family members but that may be the only route to take let go and move on.
The good thing about Australia, New Zealand and some other countries is their solid base in counselling as counselling helps in coping with grief and depression.
But the solution does not lie in counselling, or compensation and help with the funeral expenses for the families. There will be questions as to whether Pike River had been operating according to standards specified in the country.
Since the mine was in a national park, there will also be queries as to whether the environment had been compromised.
New Zealand takes a lot of pride in conservation and sustainability and it believes in recycling efforts to preserve the environment. Could there have been a breach somewhere and could the blast have been avoided in the first place?
Coal extraction is a dangerous business and there is a human cost. When something goes wrong, the cost is not just in dollars and cents, it is about people's lives for which there is no replacement.
Not long ago there was the Chilean mine tragedy, now it is New Zealand and who knows where next.
The question is: are companies going to allow humans to perish because they need to meet demand for more coal or will something drastic be done to change the way mining for coal is carried out so that lives are not compromised?

  • Deputy news editor B.K. Sidhu, who is in Auckland, is saddened by the incident.

  • (Published in The Star on Nov 26, 2010 - Friday Reflections with B.K. Sidhu)