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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Anna Osborne

On the eve of re-entry to the Pike River Mine JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM talked to the secretary/advocate for the Pike Family Reference Group, and widow of Milton Osborne – about love, loss, and standing by her man.

How did you and Milton meet?

I was the busty barmaid at Nelson Creek pub. Milt would come in for a raspberry and coke – he wasn’t really a drinker – and we used to chat. But I’d chat to everyone, so I had no idea he was interested.

Eventually he got the courage to ask me out, but I wasn’t keen. Someone had given him my number, and he kept phoning, but I’d get my brother to answer and make up excuses.

In the end he was so persistent I thought I just needed to do it and get it over with. And when he picked me up to go for a drive, I decided he was actually a really sweet guy – quite a gentleman.

My father had seen a few of my previous boyfriends and always said “No, not for my daughter.” But with Milt he said “If I died tomorrow Anna, I’d die happy knowing that Milton would look after you.” And my dad was always right.

Was Milt a miner?

No, he was born in Hamilton and had worked as a bushman in the Coromandel. When native logging came to an end there he moved down here to get work, and bought the house in Ngahere that became our home. It was a hard life, but he was physically fit, and he absolutely loved it because he was such an outdoors person.

There was quite an age gap, wasn’t there?

Milt was 10 years older than me, and that seemed huge at the beginning, but it worked really well. When our children came on the scene they kept him young. He taught them to fish, hunt, cook, and garden. We’d play board games and do general knowledge quizzes, and when our daughter was at an age where she wanted to do more girly things instead of hunting or fishing, she and Milt would go on the computer and do karaoke together. He was an incredible father.

And he was a real giver too. When he was killed the Grey District lost a councillor, and our local community lost its deputy fire chief, the secretary of the hall committee, the secretary of the domain board, and a member of the school board of trustees.

How did he come to be working at Pike?

When the logging dried up he got work with a contractor in Greymouth, and went to Pike to build some flumes underground. One of the bosses there realised his work ethic was really good, and said: “Why don’t you start your own business? We’d be happy to take you on.”

When Milt told me, I wasn’t keen. I said: “You’re a long time underground when you die. Do you really want to work underground?”

But I only had a part-time job as a teacher aide, and with children of 13 and 15, we basically lived from pay day to pay day. Milt said this could be our opportunity to have a bit of money and do some things together for the first time – get the house done up and go on a holiday.

So, five months before Pike blew up, he started his own business. After two or three months, he realised he didn’t really like Pike. He’d see things that didn’t sit well with him, but he’d report them and nothing would get done.

By the end he only had two bloody weeks to go at Pike, then he was going to Spring Creek.

Did you know families from the mine at that time?

Only those Milt employed. Two of them – Sam MacKie and Terry Kitchin – were with him that day. The other one didn’t turn up for work, but that saved his life and for that I’m grateful.

I feel guilty that because Milt employed these people they lost their lives – and Sam’s partner had only just found out she was pregnant. But the partners have been incredible. Both of them said the guys loved working for Milt, and Sam’s partner said Milton was like a father to him. They don’t blame me … but it’s still hard.

You had battles to fight right from the start, didn’t you?

Milt was owed quite a bit of money by the company when he was killed, and when it went into receivership the contractors, as unsecured creditors, weren’t going to be paid. I went on TV and said: “My husband worked his arse off and lost his life for this, and there’s no way I’ll rest until he’s paid.” In the end they did pay so many cents in the dollar – but he’s still owed about $60,000.

How did you and Sonya Rockhouse end up fronting the fight for re-entry?

Five years after the explosion the National government said: “We can’t do drift re-entry. We’ll give the families a memorial track.”

The families’ group that had been set up said we should accept this and move on, but it didn’t sit right with me. I was never going to accept it in place of having my husband home, so I moved away from that group – not disliking anybody, but just feeling there was more that could be done.

Sonya wasn’t happy either. She’d seen me on TV and said “You look like a bolshie bitch.” I said “Really? I’m totally the opposite to that, but if it’s to do with my man, I go in fighting.”

In 2016, [then mine owner] Solid Energy decided to permanently seal the mine – a lid on the coffin of our men – and there was no way in hell I was going to let that happen, so I called up Sonya and we got together to stop it.

You were unwell at the time, weren’t you?

I’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma –for the second time – the month before Pike, and when we were organising the occupation to stop the seal I’d just finished chemotherapy. During chemo I’d also been diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy called CMT, which meant they had to stop some of the drugs I was on because they were basically killing me.

How did you manage?

Over the previous couple of years I’d become good friends with [CTU president] Helen Kelly. I met her at Pike, and then we went through chemo – and the medicinal cannabis thing – at the same time. I’d never tried drugs before, but Helen put me on to it, and it helped.

Through Helen I met [documentary maker] Tony Sutorius and [media advisor] Rob Egan, who both gave us a lot of help, and are now members of the FRG.

Helen [who died in October 2016] fought so hard for us. We felt we had to honour her, so after she passed away I rang Tony and said I want to keep fighting but I’m not sure what to do, and he suggested the protest [at the mine gate], followed by occupation of the road, to keep Solid Energy off site.

Sonya was working at the time, and I was still bald from my chemo, but Tony came down from Wellington to help, while Rob created the Stand with Pike brand, and set up a Facebook page to tell our story.

How did you persuade the government not to do the seal?

During the occupation I rang the company that was supplying the concrete and asked them not to do it. They agreed, and all the other concrete companies withdrew their support as well. That was absolutely massive because it wasn’t just Pike families on board anymore, which meant we had a chance.

What happened next?

Nick Smith had said there’d be no re-entry under a National-led government, so a change of government was our only hope. We went to Parliament and talked with Andrew Little, the Maori Party, the Greens, United Future, and New Zealand First, and got cross-party agreement that they would look into a drift re-entry. The only party that wouldn’t support it was ACT.

That’s a big step up for a rural teacher aide. How did you manage it?

Through having a really good crew. I had no idea how politics worked – wasn’t even interested to be honest – but Rob Egan had worked in Parliament, so he knew all about it.

I’m not one for the limelight – I absolutely hate it – but to keep Pike alive, we’ve had to go out of our comfort zones. Once this is all over I’ll be happy to walk off into the sunset, but for now I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not something I asked for, but for the love of my husband I can’t let it lie.

Why is a drift re-entry so important?

People say why don’t you just move on? And some families have been able to do that – to hold memorial services and say goodbye – but I always felt that if I did that before I’d tried everything to bring him home, it would mean I’d given up.

I’ve lost nearly nine years of my life to get to where we are now. I know my children are longing for the day when they can have some sort of gathering for their father, and have their mother back, but I don’t want Milt, or the other 28, to be forgotten.

What about the safety side?

I’ve sat in and listened to all the experts, and not one of them said this can’t be done safely. If any of them had, I would have accepted that and walked away, because I’d have known I’d done everything possible. But they didn’t say that – not one of them.

When the National government said it was unsafe, that wasn’t good enough for me because they weren’t experts, and that’s why we continued to fight.

Is it important to retrieve something of Milt?

It’s what I want – whether it’s his remains, his wedding ring, his diary, or just the eyelets from his boots. But we’re not going into the mine itself, where most of the men are, so there may be no remains to come out.

I don’t need to get all of him home, but something would be better than nothing. If I can’t get that I’m going to have to come to terms with it, but there’ll always be a piece of me that wants more.

Are you hoping for forensic evidence?

If we can’t bring him home we need to make sure we get the next best thing, and there’s a lot of evidence down there. We need to find these things, so the families will at least have the chance of getting some truth and justice. We don’t want to hang, draw and quarter anyone, but we need the people who could have prevented this to have their day in court and take responsibility for their inactions.

What will you do after the re-entry?

Sonya and I do a bit of speaking about our experiences. Recently we spoke to 30 detectives in Wellington about how the police dealt with the Pike families – how we’d felt shut out, and believed things could have been handled differently. Apparently they used what we said in their response to the Christchurch mosque killings, which really warms my heart.

Apart from that, my cancer’s back, and I know it will probably take me eventually, but I’m going to do everything I can to be around for as long as I can.

Pike has kept me incredibly busy and I think that’s actually helped keep me here, but now my darling daughter has produced a granddaughter for me, and I feel so blessed to have somebody in my life who makes me smile again.


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