Tim Hume: The week New Zealand grew up

New Zealanders like to conceive of themselves as a resourceful, self-reliant people, now-here more so than on the South Island's rugged West Coast, a region famous for its remoteness and steady rain, where mining has been a way of life for generations.

Which is why the sense of helplessness that has enveloped the nation this past week in the face of the country's greatest disaster in decades has felt so wrong. In the second crisis to hit the South Island since the 7.1 magnitude Canterbury earthquake in September, a gas explosion in the Pike River coal mine left 29 men stranded inside a mine tunnel. Although the miners were unable to exhibit any signs of life, the New Zealand public, buoyed by the recent fairytale in Chile, held out hope of bringing some of them back alive. Media reports enthusiastically discussed the possibility of air pockets, the location of fresh water supplies and how much lunch the miners had packed.

But rescue efforts proceeded at an agonising pace, before descending into bleak farce. Drilling didn't start until two days after the explosion, while the first incursion into the mine was not until day five, via a military robot which ventured half a kilometre, struck water, and shorted out. When the quest resumed, the robot ran out of battery power. The miners' traumatised families were told that help was on the way, in the form of better, more sophisticated robots from America and Australia. The sense of national impotence grew and it was galling. Why were we relying on big brother to bail us out? Why hadn't the equipment already arrived? After five agonising days, with nothing to report despite the blanket coverage, frustration turned to disbelief and anger.

The mood was summed up by Geoff Valli, whose 62-year-old brother Keith was missing, and who called for some of the old-fashioned "bravery" of the sort exhibited in the Coast's previous mine disasters. "I know the talk around town; there are a lot of guys prepared to go in and do it," he said. "They're not taking their mothers in there to rescue guys. It's time for men to do what men have got to do."

In a country of four million, the potential loss of 29 men leaves room for little else in conversation, and as office workers monitored news tickers repeating the same information, a certain water cooler bravado prevailed. Why were the rescuers hanging back when there were men in the ground? Weren't heroes meant to risk their lives? Some saw the hesitancy as emblematic of a national malaise, of a country emasculated of its frontier spirit, more concerned about checking off bureaucratic health and safety requirements than saving lives. The increasingly strident second-guessing peaked when an Australian journalist asked pointedly whether the 9/11 firefighters would have held back.

Well, more than 340 firefighters were killed at the World Trade Centre. Much as the Pike River rescuers would likely have been had they ventured inside. The crisis was ended as dramatically as it had begun when a second massive explosion tore through the mine. When the authorities confirmed there was no chance of any survivors, shattered communities began bringing down the yellow ribbons that had adorned their trees and lampposts, confronting the sort of losses that previously only world wars had brought.

Prime Minister John Key described the outcome as an "agonising blow". But it was also a vindication of the rescuers' caution and proof that a gung-ho attitude can be outdated and worthless. As the country came to grips with the news there would be no repeat of the Chilean miracle, many of us concluded that the rescue team's judgement was not cowardly but judicious, that the sleeves-up approach would have only led to more bodies buried beneath Pike River. Although it was of scant comfort, a collective lesson was learned.