19 Sep 2011

Full picture of mine operations not given, inquiry told

5:00 pm on 19 September 2011

A member of the Pike River technical expert panel says he had concerns they were not given a full picture of operations at the West Coast mine.

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

The hearing has begun a third week of looking at the response to the explosions.

On Monday evidence was heard from Jim Stuart-Black, the Fire Service's special operations manager and Urban Search and Rescue national manager, who was part of a technical expert group advising police leading the operation.

Mr Stuart-Black said he raised concerns with police over the lack of information coming through to the expert panel. In some cases they were expected to review a risk assessment, despite not having the context of the wider operations.

"If your plan only looks at, say, one part of a 10-part jigsaw, you may actually be then building in errors into your risk assessment process if you don't see the totality of what's trying to be achieved. My comment here to police is we need to see the whole picture."

Mr Stuart-Black says five days after the first explosion, the panel was under the impression that the Mines Rescue Service planned to enter the mine.

The expert panel put together information raising concerns about the plan, but later found the rescue service had not been intending to enter the mine.

Family members to give evidence

Seven family members are expected to give evidence later in the week, including spokesperson Bernie Monk and Sonya Rockhouse whose son Ben died in the mine.

The inquiry has already heard from Mrs Rockhouse's other son Daniel, one of only two men who got out following the first explosion, and from her husband Neville, the safety and training manager at the mine.

The inquiry is also expected to hear from Steve Ellis, who was appointed statutory mine manager of Pike River Coal when it was put into receivership in December last year.

The final witness this week will be former Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall.

Sympathy for Welsh families

Families of the Pike River men expressed their grief at the deaths of four men who died during a flash flood at Gleision Collery in south Wales on Friday. Three other miners survived.

Spokesperson Bernie Monk says the families know the shock, loss, grief and questions the Welsh families will be experiencing.

"The hearts of the families of Pike River go out to family members over there. There's not much we can do - we know the pain they must be going through, and the only thing we can offer them at this stage is prayers and more prayers - and we'll be certainly doing that over the next few days."

The commissioners also expressed their sympathy, including Justice Graham Panckhurst who says the parallels between the death of the Welsh miners and the Pike River tragedy are all too apparent.