How about a movie telling the story of Pike River?

The person who came up with the idea of making a Hollywood movie about the aftermath of the Christchurch mosques shootings in 2019 should look a little further back in time for a far more interesting story of money, politics, and a life-changing tragedy.

News of the mosque movie broke this week thanks to Australian actor Rose Byrne saying she was to play the part of prime minister Jacinda Ardern in the movie They Are Us. The fallout has been predictable with some saying Hollywood should not profit from tragedies (51 people died in the shootings). However, if Hollywood was prevented from making movies about tragedies then films about numerous wars, the Titanic passenger liner, and 9/11 etc wouldn’t have been made.

Had FilmNation Entertainment – makers of They Are Us – thought to ask what New Zealand tragedy might lend itself to the Hollywood treatment then one event springs instantly to mind – the gas explosion at Pike River mine in Greymouth that killed 29 men on 19 November 2010.

The film, which I’d title 29 Good Men would be a political and courtroom drama like no other, featuring big business, a nimble CEO, politicians from both sides, an ambitious union leader, inept police officers, and the miners’ families as they campaign for justice.

And if the moviemakers were intent on featuring a high-profile sitting politician in lieu of Jacinda Ardern then one need look no further than former EPMU (union) leader, former minister of justice, and current minister of Pike River Re-entry – the ‘honourable’ Andrew Little.

Little was leader of the EPMU when the mine was opened and years later was the one who, on 23 March 2021, pulled the plug on recovering the bodies of miners and contractors for their families, saying that $50 million is too much to pay for recovery work after 11 years of broken promises. A month later, the government pledged $1billion-plus for a North Shore bridge cycle way in Auckland (after cyclists blocked the bridge in support of a cycle path).

Andrew Little speaking on RNZ’s Morning Report 22 November 2010, three days after the first explosion.
The original audio file is here.

In the days after the 2010 gas explosion Little shocked many by saying there had been no problems at Pike River and defended its safety record.

In July 2013, Solid Energy, which had taken over the mine from Pike River Coal in 2012, was ordered by the court to pay $110,000 to each of the victims’ families and fined $760,000 (note how the government gets the lion’s share – typical in any Worksafe judgment you care to look at).

In the end, Solid Energy (a company owned by the government) paid just $5,000 to each of the dead miners’ families before transferring ownership of the mine to the government. However, even $110,000 was nowhere near the mark. The award should have been $millions to each family, not one year’s salary for a miner.

Meanwhile, Pike River Coal’s former CEO, Peter Whittall, the man running the firm when the explosions happened, had 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act dropped. He walked away having offered “blood money” to the families (thanks to director liability insurance) amid calls by the EPMU for new corporate manslaughter laws to be introduced.

This RNZ interview features Brent Forrester and the then EPMU leader Andrew Little.
The original audio file here.

Speaking on Radio New Zealand in December 2010 (weeks after the explosions), former Pike River miner Brent Forrester says the explosions were preventable and that miners raised safety concerns leading up to the disaster. Something that Little appears not to agree with during the RNZ interview…

“Twenty-nine men died at Pike River because of a culture which persecuted the union and put profits ahead of safety,” says the EPMU’s Ged O’Connell in December 2013.

Making a movie about recent events that involve any loss of life is always going to be fraught with difficulties. Still, 60 Minutes and numerous other documentary TV shows and films are made.

Many New Zealanders are still hurting over Pike River, the mosque shootings, the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and building failures, the 2019 White Island tragedy, and the Erebus plane crash of 1979.

New Zealand is a small island nation and Hollywood filmmakers need to tread carefully. But even if they do, not everyone will be happy with the end result.

But if any Pike River families are unhappy about Little’s decision to halt recovery work then there seems to be an easy fix. Do what some cyclists did a few weeks back and block traffic on Auckland’s North Shore bridge one sleepy Sunday morning, a stunt that forced the government’s hand on agreeing to build a $1bn a cycle on the bridge.

Of course, some in power may not want to look too deeply into the mine…Fact is, the Pike River Coal tragedy is a sore that will continue weeping until all the miners are recovered and those responsible held accountable. Their families are owed nothing less than to be able to bury their loved ones and know the unvarnished truth.

For your reference, the Pike River IPO prospectus and the Pike River Coal shareholder briefing 2010.

A book covering the tragedy at Pike River was released in April 2022 called Pike River: Crime and Cover-Up by Tom Peters.

Note: Government has since pulled funding on the Harbour Bridge cycle lane.


Steve Hart is a writer and podcaster.

I am David – book review

19 October, 2020