14 Sep 2011

Exchange over rescue document at Pike River inquiry

7:56 am on 14 September 2011

Legal counsel and a senior police witness have got into a fiery exchange at the inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster.

A Royal Commission is being held in Greymouth into the deaths of 29 men killed in a series of explosions at the West Coast mine, beginning on 19 November last year.

Nigel Hampton QC, representing the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union, asked Assistant Commissioner Grant Nicholls on Tuesday about a key rescue document, Coordinated Incident Management Systems or the CIMS manual.

Mr Nicholls said this was currently being rewritten, and he understood the Mines Rescue Service was not involved.

This led to a a strong denunciation by Mr Hampton in light of what he called the chaotic situation after the Pike River explosion, where the police took charge with minimal consultation.

Mines Rescue's questions

Mines Rescue Service lawyer Garth Galloway asked Mr Nicholls why the police took charge, when by their own admission, they were not equipped or trained to go underground.

Mr Nicholls said there was no discussion about the matter at the time but there was a strong statutory argument the police should have taken charge, especially in a crisis situation.

Mr Galloway made it clear that Mines Rescue did not believe anyone survived longer than an hour after the first explosion at the mine.

He said this wasn't communicated properly to the police at the time.

The police maintained some might have survived for a few days.

Mr Nicholls also said on Tuesday part of his knowledge of the Mines Rescue Service came from a Google search.

The police assumption of control has been supported by a spokesperson for the bereaved families, Bernie Monk.

Mr Monk, who lost his son Michael, thinks police did the right thing.

"The police were the right people to be put in place as the figurehead. They had the money, they had the resources, they had the manpower. The coordination between everyone was what they were debating about in the court today. I think the commission will sort of sort these things out."

He says there have been pledges by police to make more decisions lower down and with more input in future.

Decision not to seal mine questioned

Assistant Commissioner Nicholls told the inquiry the police did not seal off the mine after the first blast because that would trap any survivors inside and sentence them to death.

The lawyer for mining company Solid Energy, Craig Stevens, said the opposite could be true.

He said sealing the mine like a container might still have given survivors the chance to escape while at the same time shutting off the inflow of air and reducing the chance of further explosions.

Mr Nicholls rejected a suggesting that a second explosion may not have occured if the mine had been sealed.