‘I want answers’: Dead miner’s father lashes investigators
THE family of Mount Perry coalminer Jack Gerdes, who was killed in a tragic incident at Baralaba North coalmine on July 7, is still waiting for answers about the circumstances leading to his death.
Jack died around 2am when he accidentally engaged the retractable staircase on a Komatsu PC4000 excavator, becoming crushed between the staircase's handrails and the excavator's body.
The incident is currently under investigation by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and the Queensland Mines Inspectorate.
Golding Contractors, who employed Jack, have confirmed their internal investigation is complete, while the progress of Baralaba Coal Company's internal investigation is not known after they failed to respond to our questions.
Jack's father Brian said he has been informed the external investigation will take up to one year to complete.
"Why so long?" he asked.
"This thing happened in a couple of square metres, not a couple of square miles.
"Do they think that after (another) six months our memories will fade? Wrong."
Mr Gerdes noted that, while the family is still waiting for answers, another miner has since died, taking the tally in Queensland to seven in the past 18 months.
"(Brad Duxbury died) underground, it's unassociated but comes down to safety as well," he said.
"Safety involves fixing it, and that always involves money, and so they take the cheap way out if they think they can get away with it.
"And seven times it's backfired on them, and us, which is the big problem."
Mr Gerdes said his son spoke often about safety concerns he had with the mine.
The Australasian Mine Safety Journal reported that coalminers they had spoken with around the time of Jack's death indicated that problems with retractable staircases had been identified and reported prior to the incident.
"They said inadvertent operation of retractable stairs was an ongoing problem that required frequent resets by digger operators," the journal reported.
Mr Gerdes said, aside from a faulty design which saw the staircase release valve positioned too close to another key set of switches, he blames the lack of on-ground safety representatives.
"On each shift, there should be a safety rep, there should be someone (workers) can go to and say, 'We're not touching this'," he said.
"If they went to the foreman or supervisor, he'd tell them to operate it or f--- off.
"Without union representation, the operators and ground workers are not willing to risk dismissal and the mines use this to their advantage."
Mr Gerdes said he and wife Cheryl had another son and daughter still working in the coalmines.
"How many owners and managers of coal mines have their kids working in coalmines?" he asked.
"I bet none of them work underground, they wouldn't be game enough to let them in there."
Baralaba Coal Company did not respond to our questions, while Golding Contractors said in a statement that, as the investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for them to comment.
In a statement, a Queensland Mines Inspectorate (QMI) representative said QMI shared its initial findings in an interim report on August 13.
"When the investigation is complete, the QMI will determine, in accordance with its compliance policy, any further action that is required," the representative said.
"Findings from QMI investigations can identify information and recommendations for industry to help improve its safety performance, and in some cases may result in compliance and enforcement action being taken against companies and individuals.
"For that reason, investigations must be comprehensive and meticulous."
Is new industrial manslaughter law the answer?
In response to the deaths, the State Government will look to introduce a new offence of 'industrial manslaughter' in the new year, intended to cover mining bosses.
It was revealed in late November that the proposed offence would carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail while companies could be slugged with a maximum fine of $13.34 million.
Mr Gerdes viewed the development with suspicion.
"It's all lip service, it's got to happen yet, and who are they going to charge, one of their mates they get all their taxes from?" he asked.
According to the report at the time, the new offence would carry no time restrictions, although the bill would not be made retrospective.
This latest move followed a safety "reset", announced in the wake of Jack's death, which saw close to 50,000 mine and quarry workers undertake special training that will specifically target fatal risks.
Mr Gerdes said one of the best ways to stop the deaths is to make the findings into his son's and other miners' deaths open, so lessons can be absorbed and learnt.
"Please... get this done honestly so that future workers' families don't have to go through the trauma this causes," he said.
Life after Jack
Mr Gerdes said the family will mourn Jack "for a long time to come".
"It is not easy for us to accept that he has gone and we won't see him again," he said.
Jack is the third child Brian and his wife Cheryl have lost in tragic circumstances, out of 10 - one died following an assault while another suicided.
"It's a bit unbelievable," Mrs Gerdes said.
"I still have that little pocket of disbelief, that someone so big and strong and beautiful could be gone just like that."
She said she still remembers saying goodbye to her son the morning of the incident.
"He came here the morning before he took off, he put his arms around me and he had bright tattoos on one arm and not so bright tattoos on the other, which was an early learning curve of some tattooist who wanted to train with him," Mrs Gerdes said.
"He was up there," she said, indicating how Jack dwarfed his mother, "the sun was shining behind him, and I don't know if I heard what he said or not because he was up there (so high).
"But then a fellow came up to me at the funeral, the one who went to work with him that day, said to me, 'I'll never forget what Jack said to you'.
"He said, 'I love you, mum'.
Mrs Gerdes said Jack, who was born in Bundaberg but lived his whole life in Mount Perry, "really made a home" for himself in the small town.
"The other kids are take or leave it, but I think he loved it here," she said.
She said the pain of knowing he was gone was lessened by knowing Jack was so loved by the community.
"In the weeks after he passed away, a lot of people, they came constantly through here, and we'd sit outside," Mrs Gerdes said.
"I would have thought I wouldn't like that, I don't like a million people around, but they all had funny stories about Jack, and we ended up laughing a lot of the time, laughing about what Jack had said or done."