Pike River: father learned from TV son missing

By Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

Mines rescue try to break open the container door at Pike River. Photo / supplied
Mines rescue try to break open the container door at Pike River. Photo / supplied

The father of one Pike River Mine victim learned his son was missing after seeing his photograph on TV, the Royal Commission of Inquiry heard today.

Families' lawyer Nicholas Davidson QC said it took police Superintendent Gary Knowles more than eight hours to arrive on site after the explosion and communications broke down.

Mr Davidson produced paperwork showing that a day after the blast, the Fire Service firmly believed a fire was blazing underground and there was a need to be "realistic".

Mr Knowles said he did not realise there was a fire "to that extent", and Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall was saying something different. He had not lied to the families, but they should have had that information, Mr Davidson said.

It was not the only communication breakdown.

On November 20, the day after the explosion, an image of one the missing men was shown on Australian TV. The next morning his father, sitting in Christchurch Airport, called Christchurch police, was put on hold, and told to call Greymouth police, who told him they could not confirm if his son was among the 29 missing.

By now in tears, he was approached by airport staff and asked to be taken to police or airport security, who could help.

Only then was it confirmed that his son was trapped underground.

Another woman drove to the mine at 8.30pm on the night of the blast because she had not heard from the police or Pike River. She was turned back at a roadblock and sent to two venues in Greymouth. She was finally phoned at 5.30am the next day.

"No communication at all (on) that tragic, tragic night," Mr Davidson said.

Communications with families went awry partly because the mine's next-of-kin list was not kept up to date.

Mr Knowles said it had been embarrassing for police to contact couples listed on company forms only to find they had separated.

In another mistake, when Mr Whittall told families of the second, devastating explosion, they initially thought a rescue had been mounted and clapped. Mr Knowles apologised for that earlier this week.

In a lengthy cross-examination today, Mr Davidson also suggested Mr Knowles did not have the mining experience to be running the operation.

He had to absorb a vast amount of information about a foreign environment upon his arrival, just after midnight. He then based himself in Greymouth, away from the underground mining experts.

Of the 17 people working directly under him, none had mining expertise.

"You're not trained in this ... you are stuck into a position, you didn't put your hand up. I'm trying to have you acknowledge that the difficulties you faced were immense ... in a life and death situation."

But Mr Knowles said he was right to be based in Greymouth; the mine was 40km away and the situation there was highly emotional. Decisions had to be made with a clear head.

Mr Knowles was called at 4.51pm on the afternoon of the explosion. He could not find a helicopter so had to drive from Nelson to Greymouth, but after 45 minutes had to return to Nelson to collect bodybags. He arrived at 12.20am - 8 hours and 35 minutes after the blast.

On site, rescuers were flying over the top of the ventilation shaft, holding bags to collect gas samples and flying them to the Mines Rescue station for analysis.

Mr Davidson said the Commission of Inquiry into the 1967 Strongman disaster reported the rescue station superintendent took charge of the operation.

Mr Knowles said he had no specific prior experience of a rescue in a coal mine.

"Nothing really would have prepared you for something like this - it's an unknown field for someone else to come in," Mr Davidson said.

One family member said Mr Knowles was out of his depth, Mr Davidson said.

Mr Knowles also revealed that on the day of the second blast, November 24, Mr Whittall flew back into Greymouth with his bodyguard and did not offer him a flight.

Earlier in the morning, New South Wales Mines Rescue manager Seamus Devlin said he doubted an underground mine such as Pike River would be approved in Australia without two designated escapeways.

Pike River Mine had only one tunnel and one emergency exit - a vertical ladder climb.

- APNZ

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