When the yellow wreaths are laid for the 10th anniversary of the Pike River Mine tragedy today, many will have been created by a Greymouth florist whose husband was one of the 29 men killed. Cloe Nieper talks to Kim Knight about a decade in the dark.
Dolphins. Oystercatchers. Once, a small boy saw his father surfing.
Kane Nieper was killed in the Pike River Mine. But when his wife and youngest son come here, to the memorial seat overlooking the Cobden breakwater, he is alive.
“That’s where I know he is, most of the time, if he’s not here with us,” says Cloe Nieper. “I remember actually when Kalani was younger, we were sitting there and he goes ‘Mum, Mummy look – I can see Daddy in the waves’ . . . he was just fully looking at whatever was out there.”
Those waves are the brown-green colour of pounamu rind and they fold with a solid whoomph. There’s a storm in the north but tonight the sky will blaze. Every raw, rugged and beautiful cliche about the West Coast will be true. But then it will rain, and Cloe and Kalani will wake up and go to work and go to school and that day, like every day, they will do it without the man they thought they had longer to love.
It’s 10 years next week since the phones started ringing. Cloe was in a changing room at Glassons. Her cousin was getting married and she was on a day trip to Christchurch – bridesmaid duties and the obligatory shop at Riccarton Mall. The call was from Kane’s dad, a Reefton-based volunteer firefighter. Something had happened at Pike River. Had Cloe heard from Kane?
She went upstairs and waited. And then she couldn’t wait any more.
“I said to my cousin, ‘just drive as fast as you can. If the police pull us over, just keep driving’.”
On Friday, November 19, 2010 at 3.45pm there was an explosion in the Pike River underground coal mine in the Paparoa Ranges, 45kmnortheast of Greymouth. Two men made it out alive but another 29 were unaccounted for. Five days later, there was a second explosion. Police advised it was massive and unsurvivable. Two further explosions were recorded, shorter but even more violent. A subsequent coroner’s report ruled 29 men died on that first day, either from impact of the blast or the poisonous atmosphere it created, but the cause of the explosion has never been determined.
“You still don’t think it’s happened,” says Cloe. “You’re still expecting Kane to walk through the door every day, but he doesn’t. You still sometimes sit there and think that. Even though it’s not going to happen.”
Someone once told Cloe that it takes a year and a day. The first birthday, the first Christmas, the first anniversary. After that, they said, it gets easier.
This year’s official 10th commemoration will be held at Parliament. There will be a public service at Blackball, on the West Coast, and some families still plan to make a pilgrimage to the Pike River Mine portal and gather at the memorial garden just off the main road near Atarau. But the West Coast carves its collective grief in stone. Plaques, statues and lists of carefully chiselled and gilded names haunt this region. This month, the Pike River monuments will be piled with bouquets and wreaths. And many of them will have been made by Cloe.
“Being a florist? I love it. At times like this with Pike, it is a bit harder because it is more personal. But at the same time, people are still wanting to get flowers and take them to give to their loved ones. So it’s still a nice feeling.”
Roses. Sunflowers. Lilies. In November, Cloe’s order book fills with yellow flowers. In the days before that second explosion, when there was still hope, Coasters wore yellow ribbons – an international symbol of safe return. Now, the colour yellow represents the pursuit of truth and justice for the Pike 29. Their remains may never be recovered; nobody went to jail for their deaths. It is a stain as deep and dark as any coal seam.
“It’s always going to be there,” says Cloe. “And it’s always going to be there for the kids as well. They’ve got a label on their heads.
“You can’t just get over it. It’s not fair to say those kinds of things unless you’ve been through it, unless it’s happened to you. There are kids involved and they’ve got every right to know what happened to their dads. We want to know what happened to our husbands or fathers or brothers . . . I really want to know. Why the explosion happened and what caused it. And I do think people are accountable for this, and not just one person.”
In Greymouth’s main street, Cloe’s shopfront is already decorated for Christmas. The rain sluices the footpath and one customer has left gumboots at the door. It was Melbourne Cup race day when the New Zealand Herald visited and Cloe was tying peonies for a corporate client – a pub that was expecting a crowd. She confirms an order from the motorcycle riders taking part in an annual Pike River Memorial Run. Usually, they order a wreath. This year, they’ve asked for the number 29, spelled out in yellow roses. She expects she’ll do a bouquet for the Mines Rescue Service. And, as the anniversary draws ever closer, she knows she will see members of her Pike family.
“They come that week, or the day before, or even on the day . . . “
Flowers say what people sometimes can’t. They are our best days and our worst days, a tangible expression of love – and loss. Cloe has been a florist for 13 years, but she knows she does her job differently now, because of Pike River.
“You’re like a counsellor, a little bit, being a florist. You have people come in for deaths and birthdays and anniversaries. It’s a privilege. Say you’re doing someone’s wedding, it’s their big day. Or you’re giving people flowers for their baby, because it’s a wee celebration.
“And even when it comes to death, you’re doing the flowers that they’re going to have for the last time on top of their casket . . . you’re helping make it beautiful on that day for them.”
She doesn’t claim to know exactly what her customers are feeling but says, “you kind of understand what they’re going through. You take it seriously. And you try to comfort them as much as you can”.
Sixteen miners and 13 contractors died in the Pike River Mine. The big monument and the way-finding sign at the Pike River Memorial Garden record the towns and countries they called home: Greymouth, Runanga, Dunollie, Blackball, Barrytown, Hokitika, Ngahere, Christchurch and Nightcaps. Queensland and New South Wales, Australia. Scotland. South Africa. The men were aged 17 to 62. They are forever remembered as a collective, but at this garden, it gets personal.
Large boulders anchor individual homages to the men who never came home from work that day. A pair of shoes sprouts moss. A carefully laid mosaic is shiny with hearts and rain. They loved Fords and Holdens and Mustangs. They drank Corona and Speights and Cody’s. They are remembered with butterflies, whirlygigs and surfing gnomes. A stone kangaroo. A miniature lighthouse. A Father’s Day letter.
“I have wondered about all the effort going into the Pike River recovery work,” says a recent message in the visitor’s book. “Now I don’t.”
The Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy found the mine was still in start-up mode – and behind schedule – when the explosions happened. It determined the “immediate cause of the first explosion was the ignition of a substantial volume of methane gas” but could only speculate on what might have triggered ignition. The commission’s final report runs to 400 pages, but you don’t have to read far to feel fury.
This, from the overview:”The mine was new and the owner, Pike River Coal Ltd (Pike), had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal. Its health and safety systems were inadequate. Pike’s ventilation and methane drainage systems could not cope with everything the company was trying to do: driving roadways through coal, drilling ahead into the coal seam and extracting coal by hydro mining, a method known to produce large quantities of methane. There were numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe at Pike River.”
Prosecutions were mounted under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. Australian company VLI Drilling (which employed three of the men who died) entered a guilty plea and was fined $46,800. Pike River Coal Company was fined and ordered to pay compensation but charges against its chief executive, Peter Whittall, would ultimately be dropped. In December 2013, it was announced Pike River Coal (which had gone into receivership) would pay $3.4m – the money it estimated it would have spent on Whittall’s defence. The money was split between the two survivors and the families of the 29 missing, a total of $110,000 for each man who had been down the mine that day.
Cloe was barely awake when Kane left for work very early that morning. She reminded him he’d need to pick up 18-month-old Kalani, because she’d be travelling back late from Christchurch. When she got up, she found a note that said “don’t spend all our money!” The message was decorated with a big smiley face. She laughed, thought “smart arse” and chucked it in the rubbish.
“And that was it. That was it. I have never seen him again.”
The couple met in Christchurch, two West Coasters making their 20-something lives “over the hill”. He was a butcher and she worked in hospitality. Their first date was a road trip to Akaroa in his Subaru RS (“one of those cool cars back in the day!”). She remembers he let her drive, they had lunch, they hung out, “and that’s all it was. It was just a real nice day. And then we just went home, and that was sort of it . . . I don’t think he took me on a date after that.”
They married five years later at Shantytown, an historic tourist attraction just outside of Greymouth. The wedding was huge. Kane’s hair was very short, his grin was very wide and we know this, because the photo Cloe gave the Commission of Inquiry for its official report is from that day. It’s the only black and white portrait in the collection. If you look closely, you can tell it was shot outside, not far from the ocean.
She grew up in Greymouth and he grew up in Reefton and they’d always planned to come home. Cloe’s dad is a builder and he offered his son-in-law a job, but Kane wanted to make his own way. He raced through his second apprenticeship with a company that would eventually win contract work in the new mine that promised money and jobs in a region that was in economic decline.
Kane was 33 when he died. Kalani, who was just 18 months old, has no memory of his dad and Kane’s older son, Josh, to a previous relationship, was just 11. Six months after Kane’s death, Cloe turned 30. She still lives in the house her husband made them. It was supposed to be the first of many – the plan was to build-sell-build and repeat until they got their “forever” home. They would have tried for a second child together and Kalani would have become a big brother.
“Kane had lots of things planned. We talked about a lot of things we wanted to do together. And that just got taken away from us completely.”
This is the story of Cloe and Kane but it is also the universal awfulness of the Pike River tragedy. So many lives that didn’t go to plan. And, across the country, and across the world, on every anniversary, so many journalists who phone families and ask them to remember the thing they wish had never happened. Cloe hasn’t done many of these interviews. She’s agreed, this time, because she thinks it’s important to take her turn. To remember all the small, individual stories that make up the Pike 29 headlines.
“Kalani always asks me, ‘Mum, tell me something funny Dad did’ and then I’ve got to try to remember. And Kalani will say things that Kane would say, and I’ll be like ‘oh my God, get out of our son’ . . .”
They are as close as you’d expect. She calls him an “old soul” and says he’s quirky and witty like his dad. He clambers, sure-footed, on the rock wall that rises out of the Tasman Sea by the surf club. Compliment him on his balance, and he puts a reporter in her place. “Well,” he says, like this should be extremely obvious, “My father’s a surfer”.
Kane’s name gleams in the late sun that’s hitting the seat the Kahuna Boardriders made to remember him and Glenn Cruse, a fellow surfer who also died in Pike. Mother and son come here to light candles and eat cake on birthdays, to stare at the waves on anniversaries. It’s where Cloe chose to hold Kane’s memorial service. She made the floral wreath that was paddled into the Grey River, and the driftwood arrangement that adorned his surfboard. Mourners placed shells in remembrance and her brother and a friend played guitar – Green Day, Pearl Jam and Metallica.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful spot,” says Cloe. “I think, when he was out there, he felt like it was free . . . it just cleared the mind, and he had nothing else to think about except the waves.”
Sometimes, when she drives to Reefton, Cloe looks up at the Paparoa Ranges and thinks, “Oh God, I can’t believe you’re there’. It’s easier to remember him in the ocean. In 10 years, she’s made just one visit to the mine portal.
“I feel like when you go up there, you just want to run in and have a look yourself and try and get in there and find them. Or you want to scream from the top of your lungs and hopefully he answers back.”
In 2012, Pike River Mine was purchased by Solid Energy. In February 2018, ownership was transferred to Te Kāhui Whakamana Rua Tekau mā Iwa – Pike River Recovery Agency. Eight months later, it was agreed re-entry could proceed. In May last year, PRRA stepped beyond the 30m seal of the mine’s drift access tunnel. At the time of this interview, a forensic scene examination was 2121m into what’s known as “the drift” – the sloping access tunnel that runs 2.3km to the main mine workings.
Cloe desperately hopes the recovery agency will find something that can be returned to families, who have recently been asked to complete paperwork indicating what they would like to happen should the discovery of human remains be confirmed or even “highly probable”.
“Even if it’s not Kane. Even if it’s someone for someone else . . . you know what I mean? I know we’re not all going to get them home, but it would be nice if it happened to someone at least.”
Anniversaries, she says, are a day to get through.
“The past 10 years, for Kalani and me, it’s been hard. Really, really hard . . . He’s grown up without a dad and I haven’t had a partner . . . Kalani says to me ‘Mum, get yourself out there’ and I say ‘there’s not that many people here, buddy!’.” But one day, maybe? “We’ve got every right to have someone again. Everyone deserves to be happy again.”
Of course, she has changed.
“I suppose I have more of an understanding of, I don’t know, what can happen. And how strong I can be. It’s made me want to help people go through what I’ve been through . . . I swear at him a lot, I go, ‘Oh God, I wish you’d just stayed home that day’. You always think nothing would ever happen to you, or what did I do wrong, or why did I deserve this?
“I hear that from other people who have lost people and I know now to say ‘you can’t do that to yourself, you can’t punish yourself. Because you didn’t do anything, you haven’t done anything wrong, and you didn’t deserve it. You’ll understand this one day. It’s okay. It’s just a really sh***y thing that’s happened’.”
Remembering the 29 men who died in the Pike River Mine on November 19, 2010
Conrad Adams, 43, Greymouth
Daniel (Dan) Herk, 36, Runanga
David (Dave) Hoggart, 33, Greymouth
Richard (Rolls) Holling, 41, Blackball
Koos Jonker, 47, Limpopo, South Africa
Peter (Pete) Rodger, 40, Perth, Scotland
Blair Sims, 28, Greymouth
Keith Valli, 62, Nightcaps
Terry Kitchin, 41, Runanga
Joshua (Josh) Ufer, 25, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia
Zen Drew (Verhoeven), 21, Greymouth
Kane Nieper, 33, Greymouth
Riki (Rik) Keane, 28, Greymouth
Malcolm Campbell, 25, St. Andrews, Scotland
Glenn Cruse, 35, Greymouth
Allan Dixon, 59, Runanga
Christopher (Chris) Duggan, 31, Dunollie
William (Willie) Joynson, 49, Maryborough, Queensland, Australia
Stuart (Stu) Mudge, 31, Runanga
Peter O’Neill, 55, Runanga
Brendon Palmer, 27, Greymouth
Samuel (Sam) Mackie, 26, Christchurch
Milton (Milt) Osborne, 54, Ngahere
Joseph Dunbar, 17, Christchurch
Benjamin (Ben) Rockhouse, 21, Singleton, New South Wales, Australia
Michael Monk, 23, Greymouth
John Hale, 45, Hokitika
Andrew (Huck) Hurren, 32, Hokitika
Francis Marden, 41, Barrytown
(Source: Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy)
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