The Shadow Miners

We laughed at the thought of it, laughed so hard tea spilt over the lip of Monty’s mug and spread across the blue plastic tablecloth that covered Bette Petersen’s kitchen table.

We laughed because we could all picture Dean Petersen sitting there, elbows on the green felt of the $25 table at Jupiters, fiddling with his chips as the dealer served him a third blackjack from the same shoe.

He had a drink in front of him apparently. JD’s and Coke it would have been, said Bette. The State of Origin final was playing on the big screen in the background, according to our witness. Queensland won that night, not that Dean would have cared too much. He’d made the First XV back at Buller High and been a strictly Union man ever since. The league didn’t interest him, too flashy. Plus, he was on a winning streak that night.

Bette dabbed at the spilt tea with a towel as the sniggers of laughter receded. We sat there silently after that, contemplating the plastic table cover, avoiding each other’s eyes. Rain pattered against the steamed-up kitchen window.

It was funny to think of Bette’s young boy living it up in the casino at Surfer’s Paradise. Funny in the way you chuckle to yourself when imagining people who have passed on, imagining them doing what they love, fishing or playing the banjo or whatever. For Dean it was blackjack and he was good at it. Lucky too, he himself admitted.

But Dean Petersen was also dead. Dead six months last Friday. Last seen on the back of a trailer, pulled by a John Deere tractor, that delivered miners to the Black Fork coal seam several times a day.

The tractor was driven by my son Gavin, dead six months last Friday too. Like Dean, Gavin did the afternoon shift. It suited him well. He hated early starts. His job, as well as ferrying miners around, was to oversee the coal slurry conveyor system. Coal cut from the seam entered a giant bath of water and was then transferred onto a conveyor belt that carried it all the way up the mine shaft to the surface where it was dumped in a big slushy pile.

The conveyor didn’t break down often, but when it did there was hell to pay. A broken conveyor meant no coal left the mine. The pit bosses hated downtime. There were steel furnaces across Guangzhou Province to feed, the holds of waiting coal freighters to fill. Everyone’s livelihood and the month-end bonuses that kept the men on the Coast relied on an endless river of black slurry rising to the surface every day. It was a stressful job, but Gavin never complained.

He and Dean were good mates, united by the mine, rugby and drinking, but also by their love of the Xbox. They particularly enjoyed Hitman, a violent game that followed the exploits of a serial killer with a conscience who roamed around a noirish landscape carrying out revenge killings on small time thugs and crack dealers. The boys played it before they left for the mine around noon each day.

When I entered Gavin’s place that Sunday afternoon after the press conference, where the cop from Christchurch started using the word “recovery” instead of “rescue”, the image of the hitman was frozen on his flat screen TV. They’d paused the game mid-level so they could carry on playing once the shift was over. I sat on the couch, the sun peaking through the dusty blinds, staring at the tall man in the leather trench coat standing over a body in a grimy stairwell, pump-action shotgun about to give the coup de grace.

The bizarre sighting of Dean Petersen, by an engineer who had worked at Black Fork a couple of years back erecting concrete supports along the pit bottom roadways, was the fifth such sighting of a dead miner so far.

The guy had been staying at his family’s timeshare at Surfer’s and was at Jupiter’s for the buffet and the pokies. As you’d expect, he did a double-take when he saw Dean at the blackjack table. It’s not every day you see a man back from the grave.

He was riding an escalator to the second floor at the time. Coasting skyward, he watched slack-jawed as Dean scored that third blackjack. He saw Dean’s fellow gamblers clap. He watched Dean toast the dealer with his tumbler of bourbon, the league playing on the screen in the background – Queensland ahead after a conversion.

By the time he’d ridden the escalator to the top and walked around to ride it back down again for a better look, Dean’s seat was empty, the dealer shuffling cards for a new shoe, the bourbon glass drained.

All this the engineer related to Bette in an email sent from his old man’s timeshare on the Gold Coast. Bette had called the casino to ask for a copy of the video tape. The casino would have been full of cameras, shots from every angle. But the casino manager never called back. He’d have heard about Black Fork. He’d have though Bette Petersen had gone crazy in her grief down there on the West Coast. Better not to call back.

I would have thought her crazy too had it not been for the letter that turned up in my mailbox one day in April. There was no stamp on the envelope, so I knew straight off that it was hand delivered. Neat block lettering in black ink suggested a tidy, deliberate hand, someone older I thought, probably a man.

Inside was a single page folded in half. More black writing – simply reading,

I unfolded the page. It had a photograph printed on it, slightly washed out, the colours blotchy. It looked like it had been taken on one of those camera phones.

It was the red and black Swanndri shirt that immediately caught my eye. Sarah had put that swanny through the wash for her stepson probably a hundred times – Gavin still brought his washing home, Black Fork-issue overalls excluded. We’d seen it gradually fade, its collar fraying where Gavin’s hard hat rubbed against it. He always wore his collar up, like the trench coat-wearing vigilante in Hitman.

Gavin had his back to the camera phone operator. He was looking out over the forecourt, as though waiting for the attendant to fill his car. He was surrounded by shelves of confectionery and magazines, signs advertising grocery offers and candy bar specials.

The shot was over-exposed, the world beyond a blown-out haze. I imagined Gavin’s Courier truck sitting out by the pumps, but that was just stupid. The Courier hadn’t been anywhere near Turangi, not in April, not ever as far as I knew. It was parked up out the back of my workshop even now.

But the red swanny was unmistakable. Later I’d turned Gavin’s place upside down looking for it and found no trace of it. The shape of his shoulders was also unmistakable from the photograph. That was my son and he had stopped for gas or a snack at the BP in Turangi even though he was supposed to be lying dead at the bottom of Black Fork.

Someone in town had seen him and snapped him on their camera phone. I carried that piece of paper around for a long time before I built up the courage to show Sarah. When I did, after the late news one night and another bulletin on Black Fork, we sat on the couch holding each other, weeping, the letter on the coffee table in front of us.

But when I produced the photo at the meeting at the community centre that night in early May, there’d been an angry response. Some of the parents and Black Fork folk thought it was a sick joke. Others eyed me sadly, the explanations of the grief counsellors and therapists fresh in their minds.

On the way out, Monty Armstrong put his hand on my shoulder and discretely gestured for me to follow him into the empty car park. I expected him to tell me, in Mont’s usual gruff way, to get a grip. Instead he told me he’d received a call from an ex Black Fork cutting machine operator who claimed to have seen Steve O’Neill and Brent Robinson at a Highlanders – Brumbies game in Invercargill at the start of the Super 15 season. That was curious because Steve and Brent, two Coasters born and bred, never made it out of the Black Fork mine either.

Monty had been the mine safety manager at Black Fork, the guy responsible for, among other things, monitoring the methane levels in the pit. He was an Aussie, in his late fifties, stocky and red-faced, a life-long miner who had sweated away decades in the pits of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. He was liked by the guys at Black Fork, respected for his no-nonsense approach to mine safety.

Now he faced a starring role before a commission of enquiry, experts flown in from Queensland leafing through every dog-eared compliance certificate he’d ever signed. We all felt for poor old Monty. But the explosion that ripped through the mine wouldn’t have happened if Black Fork was truly safe, would it? Anyway, he would never be a real Coaster.

“We need to hold things together mate,” Monty told me, gesturing at the creased piece of paper in my hand.

“Whatever that thing is, all these sightings. They ain’t helping things”.

All those sightings were an open secret among Black Fork friends and families only, until the report about Stu Sievwright ran in The Greymouth Star. Stu was from a small town on the Severn called Newport, just north of Cardiff. He had only been at Black Fork a couple of months, a contractor brought in to do some carpentry work in the mine. He was nearing the end of a three week contract, raising some cash to finance his travels around the country, when Black Fork went up.

Now the Star was carrying a report quoting an old school friend of Stu’s who reported seeing him in Stu’s local pub back in Newport. The man had approached Stu, who drained his pint, seemingly unhappy at the intrusion, put on his coat and left the pub without uttering a word.

The report wasn’t written in a sensationalist fashion, just a faraway anecdote from a Welshman trying to make sense of the death of an old friend and the memories stirred up by a Stu lookalike turning up in his local.

Here on the Coast however, it unsettled folk. A rift had already emerged among the families as they disagreed over whether to sue the bankrupt mine owners for a better compensation pay-out for the victims’ families.

Then there was the recovery of the bodies. A plan had been drawn up, but it involved the drilling of a new tunnel down into the mine and the use of some expensive equipment to make it safe for recovery experts to enter. The price tag associated with that lot was in the millions. No one wanted to pay. To make matters worse, the mayor, who had traded polyester shirts for tailored suits on the back of the media attention he’d been getting, had started talking about leaving the miners to rest where they lay. We all saw that as a betrayal. We wanted our boys out.

So against all of that, talk of dead miners being spotted alive and well was considered disrespectful. The families closed ranks, banned gossip about such things. But the seed had been planted, which led to Bette calling the meeting over at her place.

And there we sat now, Bette, Monty, myself and Wiremu Archer, the 23 year-old miner who was getting a root canal that Friday afternoon in Wellington when he should have been down the mine. It was Wiremu who had brought the yellow oxygen tanks that sat in Bette’s hallway. The rest of the gear was in the boot of his car. The rain hadn’t let up but that wasn’t going to dissuade us.

I looked at Bette, her face lined and drawn from the stress of the last six months. Her husband John had gone to bed. He didn’t want any part of this. Bette put the stained tea towel aside and held out her hands, palms up. We held each other’s hands over the square table and bowed our heads. Bette was the one of among us and even she was only a casual churchgoer. But we mumbled the Lord’s Prayer together, the words returning to me with surprising ease. Afterwards she watched us leave from the kitchen door, a frail figure hunched against the frame.

We drove for what seemed a long time through the rain, the perished windscreen wipers on Wiremu’s old Commodore complaining the whole way up the metal road to Black Fork.

The mine was, as we expected, in darkness, unguarded. After all, what was there left to steal? The receivers had stripped anything of value and loaded it onto trucks bound for Greymouth where the various bits and pieces were auctioned off to other mining companies – in secret. They even lifted the rail tracks, leaving dark straight ruts in the ground, two lines pointing at the mine’s mouth.

Wiremu slowed briefly to peruse the front gate, which was chained. A harsh light shone from the caged window of the Portacabin office that served as the miners’ lunch room. It illuminated the white board with the metal hooks on it that held the ID tags of the miners when they were underground.

The board was bare, unlike when the photographer from the Star had snapped it, with all the name tags still pinned up. The front page of the paper the following day had listed every man unaccounted for before the police had released any names. But that was okay, because back then it was a rescue we were looking at, not a recovery. Later that photo was harder to look at.

Beyond the portacabin was the gas extraction unit the engineers had used to try and turn the atmosphere in the mine inert so a rescue team could go in. It jutted out of the side of the bushy hill like a giant In-sink-erator unit. It had wheezed away for weeks after the second explosion before breaking down and lying silent until some parts could be flown in from Sydney. No team had ever gone in.

We drove further up the side road, as close as we could to the fenced-off ventilation shaft. In the explosion, the housing atop the shaft had blown clean off, the three inch bolts securing it snapping like kindling.

The manuka trees were singed black in a halo spreading out twenty metres around the shaft, which had been covered over with heavy steel sheets. Wiremu had a solution for that which involved digging into the ground at the side of the shaft and smashing through the concrete side with sledgehammers.

But that wasn’t my job. I was to wait at the car and keep an eye out for the headlights of approaching vehicles. Monty didn’t want anyone going down there after family members. Workmates was one thing. Coming across your own flesh and blood, after a mine explosion and the ravages of six months was something else entirely.

Monty opened the trunk of the Commodore and I helped him and Wiremu haul the oxygen tanks onto their backs, over their fluorescent safety jackets. We looked at each other in the dim glow of the Commodore’s tail lights.

“Remember, forty five minutes of air is all we have, and an hour on top of that to break through the shaft wall, so we’ll be back on top at a quarter to four,” said Monty looking at his watch.

“If anyone comes, tell them you’re –“

I put up my hand cutting him off.

“I’ve got it Mont,” I said.

He nodded. Wiremu rested his sledgehammer on the rusty wire holding it down for Monty to climb through. Then they were on the other side of the fence, moving slowly under the weight of the gear, approaching the ventilation shaft, their flashlights casting long pale pools of light in front of them. Monty turned and waved as Wiremu disappeared behind the shaft.

I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them when they were in the mine. A walkie talkie could give off a spark and trigger another explosion. The torches were specially sealed units designed for mine work.

The dull thuds of their hammer blows soon echoed across the scrubby hill like mini detonations. I sat on the passenger seat of the Commodore, the light rain wetting my knees, listening to every single sound the night made. The blows stopped after what seemed like a final concerted effort, then there was silence. They had broken through.

I imagined what it was like inside, the shaft walls scorched black, the acrid smell of incinerated coal. No one knew whether the escape ladder was intact, whether the shaft was even passable – no one had been into Black Fork since that day over six months ago.

Down across the valley, the lights of a car approached, accompanied a short time after by the throaty growl of a powerful engine. I stood up, watching the lights intently as the car progressed up the road towards the mine entrance.

I mentally shuffled through my half-baked cover stories as the car rose through the valley. But then it swerved off onto a wide patch of gravel that the Black Fork trucks used as a turning bay. The car sat idling for a minute, then with two almighty revs the driver dropped the clutch, floored the accelerator and proceeded to spin the car in tight loops, dust and tyre smoke spreading a haze over the turning bay as the car spun on the loose gravel. Finally, the car, a souped-up Falcon by the sound of it, fishtailed away towards the road and gaining purchase on the metal, motored noisily back towards town.

I breathed out slowly and chuckled to myself. It was the sort of thing Gavin used to do before he got into mining, when he was working for me servicing lawnmowers and weed whackers in the workshop. He’d go through three or four sets of tyres on the Courier a year, taking to the gravel the way he did.

“At least he didn’t have a wife, didn’t leave behind any kids,” Sarah had said to me one afternoon, as we drove back from the memorial service that all the politicians had flown in for. That had annoyed the hell out of me. But I hadn’t said anything. We’d driven home in silence and I went straight to bed, my back to her all through that sleepless night. She was right though. As I lay there I thought of Sunita Harris across the road and the twin girls she’d be rearing alone.

At 3 o’çlock I climbed over the fence and picked my way through the stunted manukas towards the shaft. I knelt down in the muddy pit Monty and Wiremu had dug beside the airshaft and looked at the gaping black hole they had smashed in the concrete. I leaned close to the hole and listened intently.

Below, far off, I could hear the sledgehammers at work, Wiremu and Monty presumably clearing their way along the mine floor. A damp, stale air seeped from the hole in the concrete and for a moment I thought I smelled death. I recoiled from the hole sucking in the cold night air. I went back to the car to watch for headlights, like I’d been told to.

Exactly one hour and forty three minutes after Monty and Wiremu left the car, I saw the torch lights again and slumped back against the car seat, relieved. Wiremu and Monty climbed back over the fence and I helped them with the oxygen tanks, which were lighter now. Wiremu’s sledgehammer had broken off at the neck.

Monty handed me a yellow miner’s hat that was coated in coal dust.

“That’s his? Gavin’s?” I asked.

“There’s no telling,” said Mont between swigs of water from his battered metal flask.

“What did you see?”

Wiremu threw off his safety jacket and leaned on the Commodore’s bonnet.

“There’s nothing down there mate,” he said.

“What? What do you mean?” I asked. “Did you find them?”

“No,” said Monty. “We covered all of the forks, every pathway to the tunnel entrance up to the portal. There’s no one there. There are no bodies.”

I looked at the miner’s hat in my hands.

“That can’t be,” I said. “Maybe they were vaporised.”

“We’d have found something, bits of bone, something,” said Monty. “Those boys aren’t down there, simple as that.”

I looked at Wiremu. He nodded.

“Don’t shit me,” I said.

“We’re not,” said Wiremu. “It’s like he says.”

I studied their blackened faces, these men I’d come to know well in the wake of tragedy. I was waiting for a sign they were deceiving me, but they both met my stare.

“Don’t ask me to explain what the hell is going on here, but it is like those boys really did walk out of Black Fork,” said Monty.

We got back in the Commodore, Wiremu turned around on the gravel road and we headed back to town. On the way, at the bottom of the valley, the light on the miner’s helmet Monty had found winked on. It flickered for a second on the seat beside me, then faded out.

We debated what we would tell Bette.

“Her boy isn’t down there, none of them are. That’s what we tell her.”

And that’s what we did tell her.

Back in Bette’s kitchen I broke the news. I put the miner’s hat on the kitchen table and looked out through the steamed up window at the first stirrings of dawn. Bette put the jug on and we stood silently waiting for the water to boil.

“Where have they gone?” She asked no one in particular, excitement in her voice.

I shrugged. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. None of us could. Monty washed his hands in the sink, the black water swirling down the plug hole.

That morning, I opened the store for the first time in over six months. I forgot the security code on the alarm, it had been so long. The security firm sent a guy out to reset it. It was the same guy who had put in shifts guarding the front gate at Black Fork when the media were crawling all over the place and a few desperate parents and family were thinking about taking matters into their own hands and mounting a “rescue” themselves.

The mowers and chainsaws sat where I had left them, their sales stickers faded. On the notice board in the office was a group of photos pinned up. There were pictures of Gavin at the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and on the Heaphy Track. A tiki-tour of old haunts we had made last year when he had taken a rare break from Black Fork.

There were no more sightings, not of Gavin or Dean, Stu, the Robinson boy or any of the other eighteen souls who had perished in the mine. No more hand-delivered letters turned up in my mailbox.

As word spread through the families of Monty and Wiremu’s visit to the mine, a sort of euphoria seemed to settle on the town. The grief lingered, but it was tinged with a strange kind of optimism. I think we all played out our own little daydreams, our boys out in the world, living free. In my dream, I saw Gavin pay for his gas and walk out onto that gas station forecourt, into the light. That was enough for me. That was enough to get through for me and for the others too – for the meantime anyway.

The official inquiry found that safety standards at Black Fork were adequate, but that because of the limited scale of the country’s mining industry, regulations weren’t as strict as in Aussie or the US. Monty, bruised by the questioning inthe inquiry but facing nothing in the way of criminal charges, headed back to Western Australia and a newly opened mine. Wiremu quit the mining game and went farming in Otago.

The In-sinker-ator was unplugged and replaced with 50,000 litres of concrete. The air shaft was filled in with rubble and sealed. Sensors were installed in the remaining bore holes to keep an eye on methane levels, but for all intents and purposes, the mine was a tomb to be left undisturbed despite the thousands of tonnes of quality hard coking coal locked up in the seam beneath.

That’s what the mayor had wanted and in the end, knowing what we had learned that night up at Black Fork, it was what we wanted too.

The starting off point

This story is fairly obviously inspired by the events at the Pike River mine on New Zealand’s remote West Coast, where 29 miners lost their lives in a lethal devastating mine explosion in November 2010. As devastating a tragedy as it was, what made matters worse for the families left behind was the fact that they couldn’t recover the bodies of their men – and at the time of writing, they still haven’t been able to mount a recovery mission.

 I found myself thinking a lot about those men and the weird limbo the families found themselves in with no closure, no chance to bury their loved ones. Without a body, many of them seemed to be unable to fully accept their men were gone. The story is about the miners families left behind and the lengths they will go to, to deal with the grief and loss they are experiencing.

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