Real Life

10 years on former West Coast mayor Tony Kokshoorn reflects on the Pike River Mine tragedy

For Tony and his tightknit community, years of anguish have followed as they desperately sought to retrieve their loved ones from the mine.
Former West Coast mayor Tony Kokshoorn

It’s the phone call that Tony Kokshoorn remembers as if it was yesterday, a policeman telling him there had been an explosion at the Pike River Mine with up to 30 people trapped below ground.

That tragedy, which claimed the lives of 29 miners, would become a watershed in the former Grey District mayor’s 15-year tenure as he led the stoic West Coast community through one of the darkest episodes in the region’s history.

“I remember it so vividly,” says Tony (64) who was recently awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit after 21 years of civic duty, which noted his leadership in a time of crisis.

“I was at home picking up my wife and just about to go out when the phone went. It was the police. They said, ‘Look Tony, we think we should tell you there has been an explosion at the Pike River coal mine and there are between 25 and 30 missing.

“My wife looked at me and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘The bloody mine has blown its top.’ I dropped the phone and took off.”

For the father-of-four, who left school at 15 to recondition vehicle engines before forging a successful business career in car sales and regional newspapers, the disaster was personal.

“I knew a lot of them. Milton Osborne, he was one of my councillors. He had just been voted back onto the council the month before. Blair Sims, he used to work for the Greymouth Evening Star, Peter O’Neill, I could go on. When I got up there, I didn’t go to bed for two nights.”

He says from the outset he was determined to stick with the families of the entombed miners and look after their welfare.

“I wanted to do my best for the families. When you sign up for mayor you’ve got to expect these types of things, and when they come along you’ve got to step up to the mark.”

To this day, Tony remains convinced a crucial window was missed to enter the drift soon after the first explosion.

“Every single mine disaster we’ve had on the coast were methane explosions and teams went straight in before the methane built up again. They’ve established if the miners were dead or alive. They come out immediately and seal the mine, starving it of oxygen which stops further explosions.

“They should have gone in without a doubt. Search and rescue had said to me two or three times during the first night, ‘If we want to go in, we’ve got to go in now.’But they weren’t allowed.”

With bereaved families celebrating re-entry into the sealed mine last May, eight years after the first blast, Tony says he retired from the council at October’s 2019 elections knowing milestones had finally been accomplished.

“I’ve always been behind the families and lobbied the government to finish the job and make a re-entry, and to their credit the government has. I think that is doing the decent thing by those miners.

“There’s no such thing as full closure because we know there’s a huge rockfall around the 2000m mark and we know the miners were working on the coalfaces on the other side. I’m grateful that the government is going in and eliminating the possibility of anyone in the tunnel.”

For Tony and his tightknit community, many years of anguish have followed as they desperately sought answers and to retrieve their loved ones from the mine.

“I class myself as pretty tough, but it was very emotional at times. It took a toll,” he admits. “It took up every minute.

“I was just so lucky I had incredible support around me, especially from my wife Lynne. There were also people around Greymouth that I didn’t even know who regularly brought food around to our home. It was quite humbling the way people looked after us.”

Tony’s wife Lynne has been a huge support to him through his 15 years as mayor.

But while the Pike River disaster has been a main focus over the past decade, Tony is mindful that Mother Nature hasn’t spared the region either, serving up destructive cyclones and a tornado in 2005, which he had the misfortune to drive into while leaving the Greymouth council chambers.

“I went around the corner and a roof was coming at me. I couldn’t believe it! I rammed the handbrake of the car on, dived into the back and got down on the floor thinking I was going to be killed.

“The next thing the car’s stopped shaking and I look up to see the tornado had gone and all the tyres were slashed by iron flying through the air.

“It only took two minutes to come in from the sea and vanish into the hills, but hell did it do some destruction.”

With an approaching 65th birthday and the region tracking for a sustainable future, Tony acknowledges the time was right for a new chapter in his life.

“I’ve always been conscientious and worked hard. When I became a councillor 21 years ago, I dropped everything and dedicated myself entirely to the job. I could go on being the mayor, but there’s a time in life when you need to take it a bit easier − you owe it to your family and that’s what I’m doing.

“The West Coast is the western coast of the Southern Alps and Mother Nature gets the last say here. It creates a type of people who are never far from adversity so we have to be resilient and take the knocks as they come.

“When I got that gong, to me I might have been on the coalface, but it was my community in my mind that was getting it for resilience.”

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