31 Dec 2015

Pike River advocates honoured

5:09 am on 31 December 2015

Three people who played a pivotal role in calling for health and safety reforms following the Pike River Mine disaster have been recognised in the New Year Honours.

An access portal to the Pike River Mine on 30 November 2010.

An access portal to the Pike River Mine on 30 November 2010. Photo: AFP

It was 3.44pm on 19 November 2010 when an explosion ripped through the Pike River Mine, trapping 29 men inside where they lie to this day.

Five years on, three people who rallied the victims' families together, sought action and pushed for a review of New Zealand's workplace health and safety legislation have been honoured.

Bernie Monk, Carol Rose and Colin Smith have all been made Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the community.

Bernie Monk: "I knew something went behind the scenes that we didn't know about."

Bernie Monk Photo: RNZ

Mr Monk, whose son Michael died in the disaster, quickly became the spokesperson for many of the families, fronting to the media and meeting with government agencies, Pike River Coal Ltd and Solid Energy

He has been honoured for the thousands of hours of work he put into seeking justice for the tragedy.

The disaster led to significant changes to the way workplace health and safety was regulated in New Zealand - and Mr Monk said, while he was proud of those changes, there was more to be done.

He was humbled by the honour but had to think hard before accepting it.

He had thought it would feel hollow because of what had not been achieved, including the fact that the men's bodies had not been retrieved from the mine, he said.

The government made a promise to do all it could to get the men's bodies back and he too had made a commitment to the other families.

"I still haven't gained accountability, I still haven't got justice and I still haven't got apologies for them. So my job's not finished and, until that is all done, it'll never be finished."

Mr Monk said he felt less embarrassed about accepting the award when he heard two other family advocates were also being honoured.

'Exhausting' five years

Carol Rose, who lost her son Stuart in the disaster, said the changes to health and safety legislation made all the hard work worth it.

Mrs Rose contributed thousands of hours as the secretary of the Pike River Families Group.

She played a key linking role in the group, ensuring information was distributed to more than 150 wider members, and organised meetings.

It was simply a job that needed to be done, she said.

"Without the Pike River families and the efforts they have put in, the Health and Safety Reform Bill wouldn't have been as successful as it has been.

"We haven't achieved the body recovery, which will always be a sticking point, but there is a lot the families have achieved."

She was stunned when told of the honour, and contemplative. "The last five years have been hard. They have been exhausting. If you were to ask me if I would do it again I would say no. I just couldn't."

Colin Smith, Mr Monk's brother-in-law, was honoured for his role as a facilitator and unpaid legal counsellor for the families.

He assisted them as decisions were made not to prosecute individuals for the tragedy and to discontinue efforts to recover the bodies, and through the Royal Commission's inquiry into the disaster.

On the day of the second explosion in 2010, Mr Monk rang Mr Smith to say they needed to make sure the families were looked after and represented to the highest level.

Mr Smith had provided that, Mr Monk said. "I couldn't have asked for a better person to stand beside me than my brother-in-law."

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