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Updated at 7:20 am on 22 September 2011
The head of the Mines Rescue Service says the Pike River Coal mine should have been sealed immediately after the initial explosion to put out the fire and allow the recovery of bodies.
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.
Trevor Watts told the commission on Wednesday that the immediate response was paralysed by the excessive involvement of managers in Wellington.
Mr Watts said sealing the mine immediately would also preserve any evidence of what caused the explosion. He told the hearing he believes all of the men would have either died immediately in the blast on 19 November or quickly afterwards from methane gas.
Mr Watts said the decision around re-entering the mine was removed from those on site at Pike River, as they were told it had to be approved by the Department of Labour, police and Crown Law in Wellington.
He said that contrary to the training for such situations, on-site decisions were reviewed and controlled by a group of anonymous external committees, slowing down the decision-making.
"This level of external involvement resulted in a sense of operational paralysis. It frustrated MRS, Pike, police and others on site," he said.
"From an MRS perspective, the objective of getting control of the underground atmosphere, getting underground to recover the miners and determine the cause of the explosion was never the main focus."
Instead, Mr Watts told the hearing the focus was on the possibility that there were survivors, and then the creation and review of risk assessments by the external groups in Wellington.
Earlier, the Department of Labour was accused of having a conflict of interest in its investigation of the disaster.
The claim came from the lawyer for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, Nigel Hampton, when he was cross-examining the deputy chief executive of the department's labour group, Lesley Haines.
"At the moment," Mr Hampton put it to Mrs Haines, "you're in the invidious situation, aren't you, of looking at your own role and responsibility of your inspectors in allowing what I suggest at Pike was a non-compliant mine."
Mrs Haines said the department is undertaking a number of external reviews in a bid to avoid any conflicts of interest.
Mr Hampton said he believes mine inspectors should sit outside the department.
The department has also been criticised for taking up valuable resources but adding no value to the emergency response.
The lawyer for Solid Energy, Craig Stevens, questioned Mrs Haines about the standard of the contribution made by departmental staff at the mine and suggested the department was more focused on process than substance.
A number of Solid Energy staff are also Mines Rescue personnel and the company said last week they were not made full use of after the explosions at the mine.
Mrs Haines said it was unfair to look at isolated incidents, and a complete review of all of the work done would be needed to make a fair assessment of the department's contribution.
Commenting on Wednesday's evidence, the spokesperson for Pike River families, Bernie Monk, says he supports removing control of the mining industry from the Department of Labour.
He says evidence shows the Department was out of its depth in dealing with such a specialist aream and that this has been an issue in a number of mining incidents.
Mr Monk says if mining was run as its own entity, it would be in a better position to respond to emergencies.
Copyright © 2011, Radio New Zealand
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