20 Sep 2011

Pike statutory manager rejects rescue plan

11:15 pm on 20 September 2011

Pike River Coal's statutory manager is refusing to sign off a proposal by Mines Rescue to re-enter the badly damaged mine, saying it is unsafe and there are too many risks and unknowns.

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 which began on 19 November last year.

On Tuesday Steve Ellis gave evidence, saying that several weeks ago he was presented with a proposal by Mines Rescue to carry out a reconnaissance walk into a drift. He told the hearing that there are too many risks and unknowns in the plan.

"What if somebody falls over?" he asked. "What if somebody breaks their mask? What if within 12 seconds they're a cabbage? I'm not prepared to put my name to all that risk assessment."

Mr Ellis says he is working on a plan which would see the top of the drift entry sealed and re-ventilated, and hopes to have it in place by Christmas.

The plan has the approval of the receivers and the Department of Labour.

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme he understands the need for risk management but oxygen levels are at zero in the mine at the moment, meaning an explosion cannot happen.

Mr Kokshoorn says the focus should not be about going right into the mine, but initially just a 2.3-metre sold rock drift, which would pose no risk to workers.

The lawyer for the Pike River families says they were elated to hear of the Mines Rescue plan and are frustrated that the company has again knocked back an opportunity to retrieve the men's bodies.

'Initial' belief some might have survived

When cross-examined earlier on Tuesday about whether he believed there was a chance some of the men survived the initial explosion at the mine last November, Mr Ellis said he initially believed it was possible.

Asked about a discussion he had had with blast survivor Daniel Rockhouse and his family in which he said he believed all the men were dead, Mr Ellis said he spoke to the family at the request of Daniel's father, Neville Rockhouse, the safety and training manager at the mine.

"I went there specifically to help him (Daniel) at the request of Neville and to tell him it wasn't his fault and, yes, the people would have been dead. That was to help the lad."

He said he felt it was better for Daniel Rockhouse - one of only two survivors - to hear that there had been no chance of rescuing the others.

Mr Ellis reacted with frustration to this line of questioning, saying he felt it was wrong for his discussion with the family to be used in this way.