Pike River Coal to offer limited help

By Jarrod Booker

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Mining families should have been allowed to see much earlier the evidence of the first blast's ferocity. Photo / Supplied
Mining families should have been allowed to see much earlier the evidence of the first blast's ferocity. Photo / Supplied

Families of the Pike River dead say they are disappointed at revelations Pike River Coal is too cash strapped to play a substantial role in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the loss of their loved ones.

Stacey Shortall, the lawyer representing the mine owners - which is now in receivership - told the inquiry the company was committed to helping find out what led to the tragedy.

But it did not have the financial resources to provide the type of material sought from it, she said.

It could not, for example, provide written witness statements ahead of its directors and staff giving evidence.

The company was exploring alternative funding sources, and its position could change.

Bernie Monk, spokesman for the families, said is was "disappointing" to hear what the company had to say.

He would not comment further.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn questioned why it had taken until the first day of the inquiry for the company to say it could not raise enough money.

"It's saying you have to drag it out of us and we're going to make it awkward."

He called on the company to participate fully and provide all the information it could to the inquiry.

Receiver for Pike River Coal John Fisk said he was concerned there was not enough money for the company to draw on expert evidence.

He expected the company would seek funding for its legal costs, as others involved in the inquiry had.

Families ask inquiry to 'get to the truth'

Earlier, families of the men who died in the Pike River mine explosion told the commission they just want to know what led to the death of their loved ones.

Their lawyer, Nicholas Davidson QC, said the families were only concerned with finding the truth about what happened in the mine.

"Their intention is to get to the truth, whatever that may be.

"They also, to a family, are determined to learn what must be done to prevent a recurrence of this kind. These families have not come to the Royal Commission presenting a particular case."

However the families would have some evidence to present, Mr Davidson said.

They had access to a "huge resource" of people coming forward with information.

Mr Davidson said there were grave concerns that if the Department of Labour intended to lay charges over the mine tragedy it might affect the commission of inquiry findings.

"We do not want to see this inquiry derailed or delayed."

Police halfway through their investigation

The lawyer representing the police, Simon Moore QC, said police were only halfway through their "massive" criminal investigation into the deaths.

"It is a homicide investigation of huge proportions."

About 200 witnesses were yet to be interviewed, Mr Moore said.

Nigel Hampton QC, representing the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), said the union wanted to see the inquiry lead to a "significant increase in safety and health standards required for working in mines in New Zealand".

Hearing begins

The hearing opened with a minute's silence to honour the Pike River dead at about 11am.

"We are here because of the tragic loss of the 29 men in the mine," said chair of the commission, Justice Graham Panckhurst.

It was only appropriate they be remembered at the outset, Justice Panckhurst said.

The inquiry into the tragedy is being held in Greymouth, beginning with the preliminary hearing today.

Sitting on the commission is High Court judge Justice Panckhurst, commissioner for mine safety and health in Queensland, Stewart Bell, and former Electoral Commission chief executive David Henry.

The commission will explore what happened at the mine in November last year, and how a similar tragedy could be avoided in future.

The courtroom in Greymouth was filled with more than 30 lawyers representing the various parties involved in the inquiry, and family members of some of those who died.

In opening comments, Justice Panckhurst said that while the commission was appointed by the Government, it was completely independent of the Government.

"Of course no-one can reverse the tragic events of 19th November last. What the inquiry can do is to address and endeavour to answer three main questions: What happened at the mine? Why did it happen? And what can be done to prevent it happening again.

"This is an inquiry. It is not a court case. No-one is on trial. There are no sides. No-one will win or lose at the end of the process. Indeed, as commissioners we cannot determine legal rights and liabilities."

The commission was there to find out what happened at the mine and what had to change for the future good, Justice Panckhurst said.

The commission had powers to compel people to appear as witnesses, but would seek co-operation rather than use those powers in the first instance.

Justice Panckhurst said public comment should not occur beyond the hearings of the commission, so that peoples' integrity was not impacted upon.

"It is important for all of us to reserve judgement until everyone affected has had a proper opportunity to be heard."

It was the commission's intention to complete the hearing process by the end of the year, to allow a period for the commission's report to be written.

- with NZ HERALD STAFF

- NZ Herald

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