So when should we risk our lives?

The New Zealand mine disaster revealed the extent to which caution has elbowed aside humanistic heroism.

Mark Blackham

Topics Politics

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To ‘pike’ is a colloquial expression used by New Zealanders criticising someone for backing off from a commitment or challenge. In a country just out of its pioneering breeches, lack of bravery is still considered a serious fault. Last week, the New Zealand authorities were accused of being pikers over their failure to allow would-be rescuers to enter a coal mine where an explosion had trapped, killed or injured 29 miners.

The emergency at the aptly-named Pike River Coal Mine became a clash between the instincts of ordinary people in a hardy provincial town and the high-minded health-and-safety culture of modern authority. The result was a triumph for the slow strangulation of random acts of compassion in organised society.

On Friday 19 November, an explosion blasted its way up and out of the mine. Two men underground, but near the entrance, survived; 29 others, working 1,500 metres underground, did not emerge within the hour normally allowed. Emergency services were notified and the emergency plan enacted: which meant, basically, nobody did anything until the police took over.

By Saturday morning, the police had taken charge; a rescue team was at the mine entrance, helicopters shuttled people in and out of the bush swamped location, the army circled, and the media waited outside the obligatory coned-off areas. Worried families and other miners were taken to, but not allowed near the mine. They were told the authorities had the matter under control. One mother refused to be so managed and set up her own vigil in the mine compound, refusing to be moved. The nation held its breath for the rescue the police said was being readied. Then… nothing. The authorities piked.

The police commander in charge told the waiting nation live on television that as conditions in the mine were unknown he would not ‘risk more lives’ by allowing the rescue team to enter the mine. ‘Safety is paramount’, he said, citing a list of awe-inspiring dangers: toxic gases, explosive gases, and burning coal seams.

Few people would blame rescuers for not mounting a rescue if conditions could kill them. But then again, some workers are meant to do just that. Admirable individuals choose to do them, and are paid, even though the risk to their lives is considerably higher than sitting at a desk pushing paper.

The trouble was that the police had no idea what the actual conditions in the mine were. Air-quality tests, continually shuttled away by helicopter for analysis in the city, were inconclusive. The police were choosing not to enter the mine not because it was dangerous, but because they didn’t know if it was dangerous. This is a perverse lens to use on a job which is meant to take risks. What sort of definition of emergency, accident or rescue includes the word ‘safe’?

Sunday passed with promises to twice mount a rescue if conditions changed, or more correctly but unsaid, if certainty was gained.

By the third day, the frustration of families and locals was palpable. The idea that their loved ones could be down there, trapped or hurt, tormented them. This was expressed as anger towards the police about the constant promises of intent to mount a rescue and failure to do so. Government and emergency services dismissed the anger as ‘part of the grieving process’ – diminishing the voice of locals as invalid because it was driven by their relationships to the miners.

This condescending attitude revealed a new streak of cruelty in the health-and-safety mantra. The authorities contrasted the reason, logic and science of their big-city processes with the emotional act-and-think-later reaction of the families and citizens of these small towns.

A former mining journalist from the region said the mining community were not ‘black singleted, sooty-faced individuals’, but well-trained and studied their industry and safety issues.

Tough questions were now coming from the media. In one press conference an Australian journalist exasperated by lack of explanations for the delays wondered out loud why the project had been given to a ‘local country cop’. Government ministers quickly attacked the journalist for asking ‘disgraceful’ questions.

When robots sent into the mine broke down due to water damage, the resourceful locals began to consider their own options. One brother of a trapped miner told the media: ‘It’s time for men to do what men have to do.’

The chattering classes, including media, patronised this attitude as ‘understandable’ given the stress the families were under. Never mind that the stress was largely caused by the fact that rescuers hadn’t entered the mine to find out whether the miners were dead or alive.

This was the most poignant moment of the whole saga. Right from the start real people who were affected by the tragedy had been prevented by the authorities from choosing to put their own lives at risk. The bewilderment of the authorities at this common attitude shows that rules and procedures have placed a huge barrier between them and expression of their humanity.

Society is organised because specialisation means experts can do a better job than amateurs. But what is the advantage of participating in society when specialists in dangerous roles won’t undertake them, and are even encouraged by the authorities not to do them?

Almost one week after the first explosion, the police had decided that thanks to bore holes drilled from above the mine, they finally had enough information to be certain about the conditions down there. Rescue and first aid teams reassembled outside the mine entrance. As they reviewed the new data showing volatile levels of methane, a massive explosion welled up from inside the mine into a minute-long ball of fire and smoke. No one was injured.

Within an hour the police commander had declared the miners dead, the project in ‘recovery mode’, and cynically declared their decision not to enter the mine justified. This conveniently ignored the fact that rescuers would have been and gone four days earlier. It also ignored lessons from a similar incident in West Virginia early this year, where 29 miners had been immediately killed by an explosion but their bodies had been recovered the following day.

Pike River showed that authorities are not content simply with freezing their official instruments into inaction. They want to spread the insidious concept of ‘health and safety’ so it stops emotional ordinary folk from doing something silly like saving each other’s lives. The safety-first mantra must be resisted because it enshrines and rationalises selfishness. It chokes fundamental human instincts for family and for community. An authority that prevents a father from saving his son, a neighbour from saving his neighbour, has not only lost its humanity – it has lost its cause.

Mark Blackham is a writer and founding partner of Senate, an Australasian public relations consultancy. He has previously rescued two people and one cat.

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Topics Politics


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