Thursday, 25 November 2010

John Key did not make his weekly appearance on the Farming Show yesterday. He had much more pressing business on the West Coast, where we’ve witnessed the worst New Zealand tragedy since the 1979 Mount Erebus disaster.

The Prime Minister was right to say we should never measure human tragedy by the number of lives lost. If we did, Pike River would pale in comparison to Erebus where the loss of life at 257, was nearly ten-fold that of the 29 miners lost.

The media, rightly or wrongly, have taken some stick for their coverage. As someone who works in the industry, I know the fine line journalists tread between providing information and overstepping the mark in the pursuit of the story or a sensationalist angle.

But like them or loathe them, the modern electronic media played a huge role at Pike River.

Contrast that to telegram-dependent October 1917 at Passchendaele, where 850 New Zealand lives were traded for a senseless 500 yard gain in the bloodiest day in New Zealand war history. Or the sketchy radio coverage of the Tangiwai rail disaster of 1953 that cost 151 lives. Or the coverage, when television was in its infancy, of the 1968 Wahine disaster, where the toll was 51.

Even Erebus, 31 years ago, had limited media coverage by comparison.

Pike River was a tragedy that unfolded and played out for six days in our living rooms, on our radios and in our newspapers. Although most of us were geographically far removed, emotionally we felt close to the Coasters, that most hardy breed of Kiwis. We watched and waited, only imagining what it must have been like for families.

What made Pike River so tragic was the waiting, the not knowing, the hanging on to hope by a thread. We can now but hope the end for the miners came mercifully quickly on day one and that the families can recover their loved ones, equally quickly, to begin the grieving process.

I can’t imagine, for a moment, the grief of fathers who had sons trapped down the mine. Like Lawrie Drew, what father wouldn’t want to don the breathing apparatus and go into the mine, even though the odds were seemingly impossible? And I especially anguish for young Joseph Dunbar, just 17 years and one day of age, who was cruelly cut off just one day into his adult working career.

No doubt some hard questions will be asked and some unpalatable answers might be forthcoming, but now is not the time for the blame game. I wouldn’t swap places with Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall or police superintendent Gary Knowles for all the coal in Newcastle. The latter, especially, was on a hiding to nothing.

To quote a work colleague, Wednesday was a bugger of a day.


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