Having struggled through their own suffering and a lack of support, the families of those killed in the Pike River mine disaster have worked with the public service on standards designed to stop survivors of other tragedies from going through the same experience

When Anna Osborne’s husband Milton died in the Pike River mine disaster, she and the families of other victims looked to government agencies for support.

Instead, they found uncertainty and frustration.

“A lot of the time the families were left to fend for themselves, not really knowing what way to turn or who to ask for support,” Osborne tells Newsroom.

“It was crazy, because there was just so many families who were just scratching their heads really thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what next?’”

It is a situation Osborne does not want others to find themselves in – so she, and the other members of the Stand With Pike group, decided to do something about it.

Working with the Public Service Commission and those affected by other major tragedies, the group has produced a set of ‘model standards’ outlining how government agencies must support the survivors of national disasters.

Osborne says one of the fundamental principles is being open and honest with those affected – a simple request, but one which was lacking in the aftermath of Pike River.

“We sat through numerous meetings with the CEO of the company at the very start saying that the men are all still alive, there’s water and food and oxygen down in the rescue chamber, and so very soon we’ll be going in to get your men out…

“Five days after the first explosion when the second one happened, he addressed the families again, saying Mines Rescue has donned their gear, and we all clapped and cheered and smiled and thought, ‘Right, this is finally what we’ve been waiting for’.

“The police had to come in and say that there’s been a second explosion, and all your men are dead….we had a lot of false hope, and it was just taken away from us.”

With a lack of support from official quarters, but backing from lawyers and advisers, Osborne and others set up the Stand With Pike family reference group. The group has worked on behalf of those who had lost loved ones in the mine, helping to secure political commitments to explore mine reentry and the reopening of a police investigation.

Turning the page on ‘the same story’ for survivors

With those successes secured, on the 10th anniversary of Pike River the group then turned its attention to how it could help others. Talking to the survivors of tragedies like the Whakaari-White Island eruption, the Christchurch terror attack and the Cave Creek disaster to hear their experiences, they heard “the same story over and over again” when it came to a lack of support.

Chiquita Holden, whose father Gary and sister Jasmine were killed in the 1990 Aramoana massacre, remembers how her mother struggled in the aftermath of the shooting as Chiquita herself recovered from a gunshot wound in Dunedin Hospital.

“Back then, it was one of those unprecedented events and people were unsure what kind of support to even provide – for a lot of families, they were forgotten about,” Holden tells Newsroom.

She sees the new standards for government agencies as a good starting point, placing an emphasis on the need for good communication at a time of intense trauma.

“What you have to understand is dealing with a situation where you’ve got people who are traumatised or dealing with grief, they’re not in a position to take on information as well as someone else would … so you need a real sense of dedication from anyone in any field.”

The initial aftermath of such a tragedy is just the beginning, Holden says, with potential proceedings in the justice system providing additional stress and need for clarity and accountability.

A real-world example of that came earlier this year, when a lawyer representing the families of the mosque attack victims told a court they were being “re-traumatised” by a lack of access to information they needed.

“Unless we have the materials, how can we properly make submissions as to whether the issues have been properly identified, and put in the right place?” Nigel Hampton QC said in February.

“We just want them to know that they’re not alone, that we’ve walked the path. It’s a long winding road and it’s a continual journey, and if we can help ease the pain along the way and make them survivors, it’s just a wonderful thing to do for New Zealanders.”
– Anna Osborne, Pike River widow

Holden is keen for governments to provide survivors with an independent advocate, either directly or through funding, who can look into issues on their behalf and help them navigate often complex layers of bureaucracy with “a lot of weight on the other side”.

Osborne is also calling for additional support, noting the Pike River group has done its work on the standards (and in other areas of advocacy) without any form of payment for their time.

“We want to make sure that in the future … there is some sort of funding there for victims of tragedy, to actually help them get to where they want to go rather than having to ask for it.”

That message of empowerment, and of a less complex system of support, seems like it should be obvious – but she believes having those priorities in writing will help agencies who currently have no formal guidance to help them through such tragedies.

The standards have the support of both the Public Service Commission and the Government, which will launch them alongside survivors at an event on Tuesday.

The hope, expressed by both Osborne and Holden, is that future governments will take better heed of the lessons of the past and avoid making the same mistakes to the survivors of tragedies yet to come.

“We just want them to know that they’re not alone, that we’ve walked the path. It’s a long winding road and it’s a continual journey, and if we can help ease the pain along the way and make them survivors, it’s just a wonderful thing to do for New Zealanders,” Osborne says.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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