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Dad's anguish: I 'bullied' my son to get Pike job before he died

Derek Cheng, NZ Herald ,
Publish Date
Monday, 22 April 2019, 2:31PM
Rick Durbridge (inset) can't wait for the Pike River Mine to give up its victims, including his son, Daniel Herk. Photo / File
Rick Durbridge (inset) can't wait for the Pike River Mine to give up its victims, including his son, Daniel Herk. Photo / File

A grieving father says he bullied his son into getting off the couch and going to his death in the doomed Pike River Mine.

"I bullied him into going into the mines, which is probably one of the worst things I've ever done," Rick (Rowdy) Durbridge told the Herald.

"I would swap places with him tomorrow."

Durbridge, who spent years working in mines in Australia as well as Pike River, fought back tears as he opened up about pushing his son Daniel Herk to stop playing video games, get off the couch and find work at Pike River.

If he could, Durbridge, who has also lost three other sons in tragic accidents, said he would grab a pick and shovel and start the re-entry process right now.

"And I know there's a lot of men out there who would do the same for me if the boot was on the other foot."

In less than two weeks, on May 3, he will stand with victims' families and watch as the 30m-seal at the mine's entrance is breached and experts re-enter the drift.

It will be a emotional moment after more than eight years that has seen the heartache from the loss of 29 men's lives, outrage over attempts to permanently seal the mine - which the families successfully fought - and frustration at the lack of accountability.

Durbridge said the will to re-enter is about honouring miners' solidarity. To illustrate this, he referenced a scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when Spock joined his crew in the court dock despite not being accused of a crime, and when asked why he replied: "I stand with my shipmates."

"That's pretty much the bond you have underground with each other," Durbridge said. "Doing what we're doing now [with re-entry] is proving what a shipmate really is. I know for a fact that Daniel, Milton, Ben would be doing this as well."

Sonya Rockhouse (R), Rick Durbridge and Anna Osborne at Parliament this week where they had meetings with Ministers about the Pike River re-entry, planned to begin on May 3. Photo / Supplied
Sonya Rockhouse (R), Rick Durbridge and Anna Osborne at Parliament this week where they had meetings with Ministers about the Pike River re-entry, planned to begin on May 3. Photo / Supplied

Milton, the husband of Anna Osborne, and Ben, the son of Sonya Rockhouse, also died in the Pike River tragedy in November 2010.

Osborne, Rockhouse and Durbridge are elected members of the Families Reference Group, which was in Wellington last week to meet Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little.

They also met National's Pike River recovery spokesman Mark Mitchell, who offered the re-entry plan his full support.

And during a separate meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, she asked for their permission - which they granted - to attend the breaching of the seal on May 3.

"Scared and excited," Rockhouse said about the approaching date.

"I don't think any of us can believe it. We often look at each other and say, 'Is this actually happening?' I don't know if you can (prepare for it). We're quite nervous."

Osborne said it will be the culmination of fighting for so many years: "It'll be a happy time, emotional, a huge celebration."

It has already been emotional, including when Rockhouse and Osborne visited the seal in April last year. They put their hands on it and it seemed to move in response.

"It was almost as if the men were behind it, knocking, saying, 'We know you're there,'" Osborne said.

"It was incredibly emotional, but kind of nice at the same time, thinking, 'You're just over there somewhere, and we're coming in.'"

Rockhouse said the seal "obviously" wasn't moving. "But it felt like it was moving. It was bizarre. That was the closest we'd ever been to them."

After the seal is broken, the recovery team will take four to six weeks to clear the drift up to an airlock door 170m into the drift.

Daniel Herk. Photo / Supplied
Daniel Herk. Photo / Supplied

By the end of September, the goal is to eventually clear as far as a rockfall area 2300m into the drift, a place where some workers who perished may have been.

Safety remains the primary concern, and the operation can be halted at any moment.

The re-entry plan will not access the mine workings, and Little said it was important to manage expectations of what might be found in the drift.

"There is a chance we will find some human remains. But we'll got on with the job, get down there, and see what we find," Little said.

Any forensic evidence could lead to a manslaughter case for an incident where the families feel there has been no justice or accountability.

WorkSafe laid charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall in 2013, but the case was dropped after a $3.4 million settlement was paid – a deal the Supreme Court later said was unlawful.

"Our men died. No one's been charged over their deaths and everyone's walked away. I'd like to see people in court," Osborne said.

She added that the families' group was also determined to strengthen health and safety laws, a promise they made to union leader Helen Kelly, who fought for them before she died of cancer in 2016.

Rockhouse said they saw Kelly two weeks before she died.

"The last thing she whispered in each of our ears was, 'Don't ever give up'. And we promised her we never would. And on May 3, that all comes to fruition."

Rockhouse said she didn't want to think about the possibility that nothing meaningful would be found in the drift.

"There's no point worrying about something that might not happen. We'll cope with that at the time. It will all take quite a while, and whatever will be will be.

"But at least we tried, and I will be able to go to my grave knowing I did all I possibly could for my boy. For me, that is one of the things that has eaten away at me for the last eight years.

"I feel like we've just sat back, and that's been the huge frustration. No one's even tried to go in."

Eventually, if it can be done so safely, they would like to enter the drift themselves, Osborne said.

"That was the path my husband walked."

The Pike River Recovery Agency had told them it might be possible, Rockhouse said.

"But of course as things go on and situations change, it's more important that the people who know what they're doing go in. It's not important for us at this stage, but we wouldn't say 'no' if they offered.

"The ideal scenario is to get up to the top end of the drift, which is where we believe there could be quite a lot of evidence, and God knows what."

Time will tell. There will be no major discovery on May 3 but, for Durbridge, just breaking through will be meaningful.

"I'm elated and overjoyed at the first steps to getting in. It'll be like the beginning of a movie.

"No theatrics as such, but a definite 'wow' factor."

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