Whittall: I will not be a scapegoat

By Andrew Koubaridis

Peter Whittall. Photo / APN
Peter Whittall. Photo / APN

Former Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall came out fighting yesterday after he outed himself as the sole individual charged in connection with the mineexplosion that killed 29 miners last year.

He said he would not be made a scapegoat and denied that he had ever endangered the miners' lives.

Whittall became the face of the disaster as he appeared before the cameras daily after explosions tore through the West Coast mine.

On Thursday, when the charges were laid, the name of the 48-year-old - who is married with two children - was suppressed, but yesterday he said that he had never asked for suppression and sought to have the court order lifted so he could be publicly identified.

Pike River Coal Ltd, which is in receivership, and VLI Drilling Pty Ltd, whose drill was used in the mine, have also been charged.

A statement from his lawyers said: "Mr Whittall is a coal miner. He comes from a coal-mining town and has worked in underground mines all his life.

"He maintains that he would never do anything to put men who worked with him at risk - and Mr Whittall will fight being scapegoated now."

The charges he faces relate to the operation of the mine about November 19, the day of the first blast, but his lawyers say that at that time he was in Wellington and handling corporate, not operational, matters.

He is accused of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of workers at the mine.

Despite having the chance to leave the company and New Zealand after Pike River Coal went into receivership, Whittall stayed and assisted the Department of Labour investigation.

"He is deeply saddened by the Department of Labour's actions and intends to vigorously defend all charges laid against him, " said his lawyers' statement.

Whittall said he would like to comment more, but had been advised against it.

As well as being the public face of the disaster, Whittall spoke to the families each day to update them on the bid to get their loved ones out of the mine. And he told the families the miners would not be coming home.

When the names of the missing were read out at a press conference, emotion got the better of him.

"I know all of the men. I've employed all of the men. When I look down the list, I can see the faces of everyone on the list," he said.

Pike River Coal said it would not comment on charges against it while the case was before the courts, and VLI Drilling said the basis for allegations against it had not been disclosed so it could not give a response.

The Department of Labour said the investigation was the most complex in its history, with more than 200 interviews completed and 15 investigators working on the case at its peak.

The royal commission of inquiry into the tragedy resumes in Greymouth next week.

The charges

Pike River Coal Ltd (in receivership):

10 charges, including failing to ensure the safety of employees and contractors and failing to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

VLI Drilling Pty Ltd (Valley Longwall):

Three charges relating to the maintenance and operation of machinery.

Peter William Whittall (pictured):

12 charges, including acquiescing or participating in the failures of Pike River Coal Ltd as an employer, failing to ensure that no action or inaction of his harmed another person, and other charges linked to explosion management, ventilation management and mitigating the risk and impact of an explosion.

- NZ Herald

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