22 Sep 2011

'Pandemonium' when Pike families told grim news

8:18 pm on 22 September 2011

A woman whose son died in the Pike River Coal mine disaster says there was absolute pandemonium when family members were told that all 29 men trapped in the mine were dead.

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

This phase of the inquiry is focusing on the response to the disaster.

On Thursday, evidence was heard from seven family members of men who died.

Witnesses were highly critical of the way a meeting on 24 November was conducted and say building up false hope that the trapped men may have been alive added to the families' pain.

At first, relatives were told that the gas levels had improved and that the Mines Rescue Service had been preparing to enter the mine. Family members burst into applause, only to then be told that there had been a second explosion and there was no chance of anyone surviving.

Sonya Rockhouse, whose elder son Daniel survived the explosion but younger son Ben perished, says people were shocked at the news.

"Absolute pandemonium broke out in the hall," she told the hearing. "People were screaming and yelling. People were directing abuse towards the police. One woman collapsed and had to be taken away in an ambulance."

Bernie Monk, whose 23-year-old son Michael was killed, said he believed the men died after the first blast, but his wife hung on to the hope and the advice from mine management and police, that they may be still alive.

Mr Monk says building up such hope made it harder for people in the long run.

Children 'had made welcome-home cards'

Tara Kennedy, the partner of Terry Kitchen, who was a contractor in the mine, said her world collapsed when she was told of a second explosion at the mine.

Knowing nothing about mining, she said, she had believed what she had been told by police and mine management including chief executive Peter Whittall about the chance the men might come out alive.

Ms Kennedy said her three children had even made welcome-home cards for their father. Instead, she had to tell them their dad was dead.

Lauryn Marden, whose husband Francis Marden was also a contractor, said that after the first explosion she had a call from her husband's supervisor asking whether he was home.

He told her what had happened, she said, but she did not get confirmation from Pike River Coal that he was trapped in the mine until 5am the next day.