Pike River: 'He died for nothing'

By Paul Harper, APNZ

Families of the men who died at Pike River have given emotional testimony today in Greymouth. Photo / pool
Families of the men who died at Pike River have given emotional testimony today in Greymouth. Photo / pool

Relatives of the men killed in last year's Pike River tragedy have blasted authorities for giving the victims' families false hope of their survival.

Seven family members of some of the 29 men who died in the November 19 West Coast mine blast are giving evidence at the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Greymouth District Court today.

The court granted an application for Lauryn Marden, the wife of Francis, and Tara Kennedy, the partner of Terry Kitchen, to not have audio or footage broadcast of their testimony.

Sonya Rockhouse, the mother of Ben Rockhouse who died in the blast, said her remaining children will never recover from the "seemingly senseless loss" of Ben.

"He was my baby boy, he was only 21, and he died for nothing."

Another of Mrs Rockhouse's sons, Daniel, survived the blast. She said it was a "disgrace" no one was there to meet her son and fellow survivor Russell Smith when they exited the mine after the blast.

She recalled to court the "dreadful smell, a smell I will never forget" when she visited him in Greymouth Hospital after the blast. She remembered asking Daniel about Ben.

"He said he didn't know. He just didn't know, but it was not looking good. It was not what I wanted to hear," she told the court.

Mrs Rockhouse said at the time she had "no idea of the enormity of the situation".

"I just thought we would wake up in the morning and get news that the men were out and the nightmare was over."

Mrs Rockhouse said she generally found the mine's chief executive Peter Whittall to be good in his dealings with the families, while Superintendent Gary Knowles seemed to deflect queries and was "a bit cold in the way he delivered news".

Mrs Rockhouse said she still felt there was a chance of the Ben being rescued up until the Wednesday meeting, when they were told there had been a second blast.

However beforehand, Peter Whittall told them gas levels were down and a rescue was going to be mounted.

"He then said, in almost the same breath, there had been a second blast and no one had survived," Mrs Rockhouse said.

Mrs Rockhouse criticised the recovery process as "agonisingly slow".

She also slammed a meeting in January 13, where Police Commissioner Howard gave different information to those families present to that given to those who could not attend.

"My general overall impression is that there were pieces of information that was not disclosed to families."

The evidence given by Carol Rose, the mother of Stuart Mudge, followed Mrs Rockhouse and backed much of what she had to say.

The remaining three family members of victims - Marty Palmer, Richard Valli and Bernard Monk - are to give their testimony following a recess.

The families will also meet with Prime Minister John Key today to push their case for recovering the men's remains.

Judge Graham Panckhurst said there had been a range of opinions held by the family members and there had been questions over whether those speaking to the court were representative of all the victims' families.

He said would read one of the witness statements from a family member who did not appear, in "the interest of balance", after the family members present at court had concluded.

Earlier, the cross examination of Mines Rescue Service general manager Trevor Watts continued, with him telling the court he would not send his men into an unsafe mine.

Asked about the scenario of MRS men entering from the portal, Mr Watts it "would have been very, very difficult", not because of the distance or terrain, but because of the temperature in top section of the mine.

Given the temperature rescuers would have had 80 minutes maximum, he said, which would not have long enough.

If they had entered, Mr Watts said they would have sought to get ventilation working again in the drift and establish a fresh air base there. From the fresh air base rescuers could search further into the mine.

The court was also shown footage from the portal prior to the explosion, which was viewed on November 20 by rescue staff. Mr Watts said the indicator rag, which shows airflow, was "pulsing".

Families to meet with PM

Mr Key will visit Greymouth today as the Royal Commission of Inquiry into last year's mine explosion continues.

Families' spokesman Bernie Monk yesterday said Mr Key had promised the Government would do everything it could to recover the bodies.

"We have been told the mine is safe enough to enter and still nothing is happening," he told the Greymouth Star.

Mr Monk said the mine was safe enough to enter, and families would hold the prime minister to his promise.

Mr Key yesterday said the mine was still in statutory receivership and mine safety experts had warned not to enter the mine.

West Coast Labour MP Damien O'Connor said the families had been waiting a long time and Mr Key's visit would be the perfect time to give families assurance.

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