Pike River inquiry: What next?

By Sharon Lundy, Matthew Backhouse

Smoke billows from the ventilation shaft after the fourth explosion in the Pike River coal mine. Photo / NZPA
Smoke billows from the ventilation shaft after the fourth explosion in the Pike River coal mine. Photo / NZPA

As the lawyers packed away their files and the victims' families posed for pictures in the autumn sun, Bernie Monk was already preparing for his next meeting.

Within hours of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Mine disaster ending on Wednesday lunchtime, Mr Monk, the families' spokesman, held his weekly briefing with those he represents.

It was business as usual, with recovery of the bodies of the 29 dead top of the agenda.

"Nothing has changed," Mr Monk said.

"That's the way the families feel. There's no closure on this until the bodies are out. The families are never going to go away until this happens."

For 10 months, the inquiry has dominated proceedings on the West Coast, as the disaster itself did beforehand.

Thirty-one miners and contractors were undeground when the first of a series of explosions ripped through the mine on November 19, 2010. Only two, Russell Smith and Daniel Rockhouse, made it out. Daniel's brother, Benjamin, is among those whose bodies remain buried deep underground.

The inquiry sat for 11 weeks split into four phases.

The courtroom where it was held wasn't big by national standards. Upto 30 lawyers were present at any one time and some had to sit at the bench normally used by the jury.

One journalist covering the inquiry said the mood changed from tedium to drama depending on the evidence.

The number of family members present varied from 5 to 20. At some points they nodded off, at others they stormed out of the room in tears followed by Victim Support staff.

Those there for the duration shared a sense of camaraderie, of going on a journey together.

Many lawyers and journalists from outside the area will turn their attention to other cases, other stories.

Those who are left there know there could be years of hearings to go - Department of Labour proceedings, the possibility of private prosecutions.

And the victims' families and the wider community won't rest until they can properly say goodbye, until they have a body to bury.

Mr Monk's son Michael was just 23 when he died in the mine. Two birthdays have since passed, the first only 15 days after the first explosion.

"When we had his birthday on the 4th of December afterwards, we used that as a birthday for him but also as closure for a lot of his friends who had travelled from all over the world to come to support us," Mr Monk said.

"People flew in from the UK, from Australia, from everywhere. You name it, they came back here for us and we needed to give them some closure. It was never closure for us but it was for them."

Closure for the Monk family won't come until Michael is out of the mine. In the meantime, they've got their own memorial to him - a one tonne slab of granite in their garden.

"When he comes out, that's where he's going to go and when we die he's coming with us," Mr Monk said.

"It's probably one of the most meaningful things that we can visit every day - it's right at our door, in our gardens, it's one of the focal points for my wife and myself, and our family."

As spokesman for the victims' families, Mr Monk hasn't been able to grieve behind closed doors.

Not that he would have been able to regardless - his job as the Paroa Hotel publican means he is constantly chatting, and he believes that has been cathartic.

Some of the other families don't have that outlet, especially widows at home with young children.

That's why each Wednesday for the past 17 months, Mr Monk has joined other families for a meeting, bringing them up to speed on what was happening with the inquiry, the sale of the mine and on his communications with Prime Minister John Key and local MP Chris Auchinvole.

His sentiments are echoed by Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn, who says the coast is on the cusp of a coal mining boom but attention remains focused on body recovery.

"We want closure for the families, it's the least we can do. We know a lot of people say 'look, you have to move on'. but from our point of view down here, that weighs heavy on us.

"We've got all our men out of every single mining disaster except for two that were left in the Strongman mining disaster, when 19 were killed in 1967.

"So in the whole history of coal mining on the coast, that's the only instance, those two, and here we have 29 of our men still laying there."

Pike River Coal went into receivership after the explosion and Solid Energy last month announced it had reached a conditional agreement to buy the mine.

The company said it plans to recover the bodies then reopen the mine. It also plans to open a new mine, Liverpool, in the next few years.

The two mines between them will employ about 300 workers, who Mr Kokshoorn says will earn, on average, $100,000 a year.

"That's a lot of money for our economy so a lot of businesses here in the Grey District rely on the coalmining industry and a lot of people rely on that employment," he said.

"We have these disasters but we have no choice - we have to move on, and we will move on with coal mines in the future, because coal mining runs through our veins down there. It always has."

Clinical psychologist Richard Wheeler said moving on happened at a different pace for everyone but recovering the bodies would be a turning point for many.

"In the best case scenario, the bodies are recovered, there are proper funerals, there are speeches about each of their loved ones," he said.

"They will have a final opportunity to say goodbye and then I would be hoping that in a period of months, possibly a year or so after that, that would then facilitate a sense of closure."

Failing body recovery, a final decision on leaving them where they were would also serve as closure for some, Mr Wheeler said.

One of the worst-case scenarios was having delay after delay.

"It's the bodies lying in the mine which, if I was a relative that would still be sticking in my gullet."

Tears, allegations and admissions loomed large during the 11 weeks of evidence into the blast that killed 29 men at the Pike River mine on November 19, 2010.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry heard from dozens of witnesses and experts. Their evidence paints a stark picture of oversights leading to the tragedy.

The four-phase inquiry began with hearings on the regulatory framework and establishment of the mine. The focus moved to the rescue and recovery operation, the management of the mine and the causes of the explosion. The final phase, which wrapped up on Wednesday, looked broadly at mining policies and practices in New Zealand.

Although some of the evidence is contested and conclusions cannot be drawn ahead of the commission's final report, due by September 28, the inquiry heard some startling revelations about the causes of the tragedy.

INEFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT

The inquiry was told the mine had a "dysfunctional" culture. The Pike River management team was allegedly out of touch and serious safety warnings failed to reach the top. Key roles had high turnover rates, with the company appointing seven mine managers in two years. Lack of communication between management and the board meant board members did not receive some audits and risk assessments. The board's safety committee had not met for more than a year.

MONEY AND PRODUCTION WOES

Pike River faced daunting financial problems as the mine failed to meet production targets. The company had invested some $350 million in a mine that was not delivering the annual 1.3m tonnes of high-grade coking coal it was meant to. The spiralling costs were compounded by production delays due to machinery problems and difficult geography. The inquiry was told the introduction of production bonuses pushed miners beyond what they could handle, something the company denied.

PRESSURES ON STAFF

The inquiry heard a disproportionate number of miners were relatively inexperienced. The manager in charge of the newly introduced hydraulic mining process received no formal training and had to learn on the job. Staff carried prohibited items like lighters and cellphones into the mine. One contractor was so concerned about a potential explosion that he would not enter the mine and later quit over safety concerns. There were allegations of workplace bullying.

SERIOUS METHANE ISSUES

Levels of flammable methane gas were known to be an issue but not enough was done about it. The inquiry heard the ventilation system was poorly designed and inadequate. Gas sensors were in a bad state of repair, improperly calibrated or deliberately tampered with. A new gas monitoring system was removed from the budget and advice to increase methane drainage capacity was not acted on by the time of the blast.

INADEQUATE ESCAPE PLANS

Mine safety manager Neville Rockhouse, who lost son Ben in the blast, said a 108m ventilation shaft used as the emergency escape route was too strenuous to climb. Half the ascent was up a vertical ladder that could hold only eight people and lacked platforms. Two men who attempted a test climb were unable to reach the surface. There was no hoist system to remove injured miners, and no refuge station despite repeated requests. Safety measures like a smoke-guidance system were delayed.

SUBSTANDARD INSPECTIONS

The Department of Labour's sole mines inspector gave evidence that a lack of specialist experts and on-site time made it difficult to assess health and safety issues. A former inspector said he faced an "impossible" workload and had not seen or acted on a long list of safety failures. The mine's own safety checks were also questioned. Mr Rockhouse was not told of incidents including gas spikes and tampering with sensors. He gave evidence that he was so busy with paperwork that he was rarely able to enter the mine.

FATAL CONSEQUENCES

Australian mining expert David Reece, who led an expert panel that helped the Department of Labour investigate the blast, gave evidence on the possible cause of the tragedy. He said a coalface had probably collapsed, expelling methane gas. The gas travelled up the mine and mixed with fresh air. A pump was switched on from the surface, causing electrical arcing that sparked the explosion. Another expert gave evidence the men were killed in the initial blast, either by the shockwave or suffocation.

A MUDDLED RESPONSE

The inquiry heard of chaos and confusion after the blast. Police in charge of the rescue operation lacked expertise. There were delays as key decisions were signed off in Wellington. Opinions were divided on whether it was safe to enter the mine. Experts believed the miners were dead and urged for the mine to be sealed to prevent further blasts, but authorities clung on to the hope of a rescue. A second blast followed five days later. Superintendent Gary Knowles gave a tearful apology over the way news of the deaths was broken to families. He accepted some aspects of the rescue could have been handled better, but said he did his best to save the miners.

The dead of Pike River mine:

Conrad John Adams, 43, Greymouth
Malcolm Campbell, 25, Greymouth
Glen Peter Cruse, 35, Cobden
Allan John Dixon, 59, Rununga
Zen Wodin Drew, 21, Greymouth
Christopher Peter Duggan, 31, Greymouth
Joseph Ray Dunbar, 17, Greymouth
John Leonard Hale, 45, Ruatapu
Daniel Thomas Herk, 36, Rununga
David Mark Hoggart, 33, Foxton
Richard Bennett Holling, 41, Blackball
Andrew David Hurren, 32, Greymouth
Jacobus (Koos) Albertus Jonker, 47, Cobden
William John Joynson, 49, Dunollie
Riki Steve Keane, 28, Greymouth
Terry David Kitchin, 41, Rununga
Samuel Peter Mackie, 26, Greymouth
Francis Skiddy Marden, 41, Rununga
Michael Nolan Hanmer Monk, 23, Greymouth
Stuart Gilbert Mudge, 31, Rununga
Kane Barry Nieper, 33, Greymouth
Peter O'Neill, 55, Rununga
Milton John Osborne, 54, Ngahere
Brendan John Palmer, 27, Cobden
Benjamin David Rockhouse, 21, Greymouth
Peter James Rodger, 40, Greymouth
Blair David Sims, 28, Greymouth
Joshua Adam Ufer, 25, Australia
Keith Thomas Valli, 62, Winton.

- APNZ

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