'Obvious' lack of safety measures

By Hayden Donnell, Jarrod Booker

Pike River CEO Peter Whittall and the Pike River mine. Photo / APN
Pike River CEO Peter Whittall and the Pike River mine. Photo / APN

While Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall doesn't think his company had been in tarnished by the Royal Commission of Inquiry, the spokesman for the victims' families said it was obvious there was a lack of safety measures for even small emergencies in the mine.

Bernie Monk said the first phase of the inquiry - which has wrapped up today after two weeks - had got a lot more information out into the public arena than the families had expected.

"I think we are going to get to the truth. There's no two ways about that," he said outside court.

Tears had often been shed by family members attending the inquiry.

"We've been dragged through this for going on nine months now and it opens up wounds every time we come to do something like this.

"But we will be tough, we are supporting each other and we'll get there."

Responding to inquiry evidence about possible escape routes from the mine, Mr Monk said it was obvious there was a lack of safety measures for even small emergencies in the mine.

He said he'd spoken to one person who had climbed a ladder up through a ventilation shaft, that the inquiry heard might have led to safety.

"And he reassured me that, 'Bernie no one would have survived trying to getup that ladder anyway'.

"So it just brought it home to me even more (the evidence today)."

Mr Whittall this morning finished presenting his third day of evidence to the inquiry into the November explosions which killed 29 of his workers.

The inquiry has now adjourned and will resume its second stage on September 5.

Speaking to reporters outside the Greymouth Court he said Pike River Coal's reputation hadn't been damaged.

"Just the opposite. I think it shows that the company has taken every conceivable step and employed every available consultant to provide the best possible advice," Mr Whittall said.

"I think the company from day one has always had safety at the forefront of its way of operating."

Mr Whittall said he was still receiving greetings and hugs from family members of the mine victims.

"People understand this is a trying time for everyone."

Fresh air base not big enough for all miners

Earlier, the inquiry heard a fresh air base where survivors of an explosion at the Pike River mine were meant to gather and wait for rescue was only big enough for 20 men.

Mr Whittall was presenting his third day of evidence to the inquiry.

Counsel for the families of the Pike River dead questioned the emergency escape routes and facilities in his company's mine.

Lawyer Richard Raymond asked about the specifications of the fresh air base at the bottom of a 'slim line' shaft into the mine.

He indicated it was big enough for only 20 men, and asked Mr Whittall whether the base would be vulnerable to gas leaks if a pipeline running through it was damaged by an explosion.

That was compared to the sealed refuge centre in the Solid Energy Spring Creek mine, which is supplied by compressed air and stocked with food and water.

Mr Whittall admitted the 20-men estimation was "possibly... a reasonable number."

But he said miners could isolate the base from gas leaks using the nearest valve on the pipeline.

'Virtually impossible' to escape mine

Mr Raymond highlighted sections of a 2009 Mines Rescue Service report on the ventilation shaft, deemed the only 'escape way' from the Pike River mine other than its main drift.

The report said it would be "virtually impossible" to escape up the shaft if there was a fire in the mine, and "extremely difficult" under normal circumstances.

Mr Raymond asked about the difficulties miners would have faced ascending that 108m shaft while wearing emergency breathing apparatus containing 30 minutes of oxygen.

He pointed to reports showing a ladder up the shaft could only take eight men and evidence there were only four harnesses available at its base.

Mr Whittall said he was "not aware" of any trial evacuation of the mine using the vent shaft, though workers had climbed it in the past.

No tests had been run to show how difficult it was to ascend the shaft using air from a 'self-rescuer', he said.

Mr Raymond then discussed reports a group of Pike River risk assessors, including Mr Whittall and safety manager Neville Rockhouse, had planned to climb the vent shaft themselves about four months before the November explosion.

But on the day of the planned ascent, Mr Whittall was on the road meeting shareholders.

He had received "ribbing" about his absence in emails, Mr Raymond said.

Mr Whittall acknowledged the exchanges but did not remember receiving any reports on how the test had turned out.

The first stage of the inquiry has now been completed, and the second stage will begin on September 5.

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