Pike River a decade on: 'We've got to honour these boys in the right way, with truth and honesty'

A decade on from the devastating day an explosion took 29 lives at the West Coast's Pike River mine, families are still fighting to honour those they lost by correcting the wrongs of the past.

On this day, November 19, 2010, at 3:44pm, 10 years ago, the Greymouth site was rocked while 31 miners were working inside.

Only two men were able to escape - Russel Smith and Daniel Rockhouse. The remaining 29 never came home.

Images of 27 of the 29 victims released five days after the first explosion. Joseph is in the top row, third from the right.
Images of 27 of the 29 victims released five days after the first explosion. Joseph is in the top row, third from the right. Photo credit: File/New Zealand Police

Police confirmed everyone's worst fears on November 22, and said they were preparing for the "potential loss of human life".

'The longer it goes on, hopes fade and we have to be realistic' 

On November 24, a devastating second explosion ripped through the mine and all men were thought to have been killed. Then-Prime Minister John Key described it as "a national tragedy".

When a third explosion rocked the mine on November 26, all remaining hopes of recovering the men's bodies were dashed.

Dean Dunbar lost his 17-year-old son Joseph, the youngest of the 29 killed at Pike River. He's now left wondering Joseph would be doing today had he survived.

"On the 18th Joseph would have turned 27 - I know he would have turned out to be a kind, caring and hard-working man," Dunbar told Newshub.

Joseph is missed dearly by his family and Dunbar says all 29 of the men deserved to come home.

"If we can't bring them home then we, at the very least, need to create a place where families can go to be with their loved ones."

Dunbar says his best bet is to move forward from that fateful day with honesty.

Pike River a decade on: 'We've got to honour these boys in the right way, with truth and honesty'
Photo credit: File

"That's the only way I know how to do that for that wee boy."     

But he's battled to get the truth from others. 

"They failed and they failed badly," Dunbar says of the Royal Commission into the disaster, which got aspects of its findings incorrect. 

The Royal Commission was unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the explosions, initially finding massive rockfall may have trapped the men after the second explosion five days after the first. 

But electrical expert Richard Healey revealed in July the rockfall may have trapped them shortly after the first explosion and could explain why more of the men didn't walk out of the mine. 

Dunbar says the findings by Healey, who spent 18 months investigating what happened at Pike River, were crucial. He says families can now move forward.

"It was very important that we lifted this litany of lies and, not only do that but lay a foundation of accuracy, honesty, and transparency," Dunbar says.

"This is the way we have to do it and if it breaks us, then so be it but it's the right thing to do. We've got to honour these boys in the right way - this is how you do it, with truth and honesty."

Dunbar believes there were things that could have done 10 years ago - one of them drilling boreholes into the goaf area, the cavity behind the mine, to see if that was where it collapsed.

"Let's drill a borehole down there and let's finally close this case up because it really is that simple," he says. "You want to know what caused the first explosion? Drill a borehole down into the goaf area - let's have a look or, at least, eliminate that."

Dean Dunbar.
Dean Dunbar. Photo credit: Getty/The AM Show

A minute's silence will take place at 3:44pm at the mine portal on Thursday afternoon as a roll call of the 29 men takes place - a private memorial service to be attended by 113 family members from 14 families. 

The anniversary comes two months after a team of workers behind the recovery reached a milestone in the operation - reaching an area known as pit bottom in stone, 1880 metres down the mine's drift. 

It followed years of frustration under the previous National Government for a recovery operation to commence. 

That all changed in 2018 when the new Coalition Government announced it would go ahead with a plan to re-enter the mine - a promise made ahead of the 2017 election. Re-entering Pike River was a bottom line for 2017 election kingmaker Winston Peters when his NZ First Party joined forces with Labour. 

At the time of the explosion, 32 children, including teenagers, lost their dads.