Mine families 'just want truth'

By Jarrod Booker

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 29 men who died in the Pike River coalmine say they want to get to the truth, whatever it may be.

But getting to the truth may prove more difficult as potential hurdles sprang up yesterday in the first public hearing of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy.

Mine owner Pike River Coal, in receivership after the series of deadly explosions last November, warned it was so short of cash it could not take a full part in the inquiry.

There were also warnings at the preliminary hearing in Greymouth that ongoing investigations by police and the Department of Labour, and potential prosecutions that might arise from them, could also have an impact on the inquiry.

Stacey Shortall, the lawyer representing Pike River Coal, said the company was committed to helping the commission find out what led to the tragedy. But it did not have the financial resources to provide the type of material sought by the commission, she said.

The company was exploring alternative funding sources.

Spokesman for the company's receivers John Fisk told the Herald what money there was was being used to try to preserve the volatile mine for sale and for the likes of paying workers. There was not the money for preparing evidence and getting expert advice, he said.

Outside the hearing, spokesman for families of the dead mine workers Bernie Monk said the position of Pike River Coal was "disappointing".

"From my point of view I find it quite hard."

Despite that, Mr Monk said: "I feel confident that we will get the truth."

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said Pike River Coal needed to make available everything that was needed.

"To actually stand up on day one saying 'we've got no money', it's kind of like saying 'you've got to drag it out of us and we're going to make it awkward'."

The lawyer for the families of the dead workers, Nicholas Davidson, QC, told the hearing there were grave concerns that if the Department of Labour intended to lay charges over the mine tragedy it might affect the inquiry.

"We do not want to see this commission or this inquiry derailed or delayed," he said.

Simon Moore, SC, is the Crown Solicitor for Auckland and is representing the police at the hearing. He said the police were only halfway through their "massive" criminal investigation into the deaths.

Mr Davidson said the families wanted "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."

Justice Graham Panckhurst, who is chairing the commission, told the hearing the commission was independent, and seeking answers for the "future good".

"Of course no one can reverse the tragic events of November 19 last," Justice Panckhurst said. "This is an inquiry. It is not a court case. No one is on trial. Indeed, as commissioners we cannot determine legal rights and liabilities.

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

QUEST FOR ANSWERS

THE THREE BIG QUESTIONS

1. What happened in the mine?

2. Why did it happen?

3. What can be done to prevent it happening again?

THE COMMISSIONERS

High Court judge Justice Graham Panckhurst, Queensland commissioner for mine safety Stewart Bell and former Electoral Commission chief executive David Henry.

TIMETABLE

Hearings in Greymouth over 15 weeks from late May to early October.

- NZ Herald

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