18 Sep 2011

Pike rescue chief denies being out of his depth

2:56 pm on 18 September 2011

The commander of the Pike River mine rescue operation has denied he was not up to the task of dealing with the crisis.

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 from 19 November last year.

On Friday, Superintendent Gary Knowles was cross-examined by the lawyer for the bereaved families, Nicholas Davidson, QC.

Mr Davidson said one family member did not feel that Mr Knowles was up to the task.

"The sense that she had in that case was that you were really out of your depth in dealing with such an enormous crisis with so little knowledge of the things that you had to explain to the families."

Mr Knowles replied that he had had plenty of expert support during the emergency.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall was beside him all the time, providing context, he said, and "I saw my role as providing overview of the operation itself."

The inquiry heard emotional accounts about how bereaved relatives got the bad news.

It emerged at the hearing in Greymouth this week that next-of-kin lists at Pike River were out of date, presenting police with extra difficulties in telling people that their loved ones were caught up in the explosions.

Mr Davidson told of a person who heard about the explosion from a news report in Australia, but was unable to get confirmation by telephone, so flew to New Zealand.

His distress led Christchurch Airport staff to intervene, and airport police finally secured the bad news for him by phone.

Superintendent Knowles agreed with Mr Davidson that keeping next-of-kin lists up to date is vital.