by Lynley Ward
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn recalls the day of the Pike River Mine disaster
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn became the face of the Pike River disaster…
This story was originally published by New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and is republished with permission.
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.
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“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.
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