Pike River: How did they die?

By Vaughan Elder of NZPA

The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster opens in Greymouth tomorrow. Photo / Iain McGregor
The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster opens in Greymouth tomorrow. Photo / Iain McGregor

Families of the 29 victims of last year's Pike River mine disaster will seek answers on how their loved ones died when the Royal Commission into one of the country's worst disasters opens in Greymouth tomorrow.

The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine tragedy was announced less than a month after the first of a series of explosions ripped through the West Coast mine on November 19 killing the 29 miners and contractors working inside.

The three-man commission, chaired by Justice Graham Panckhurst, was set up to discover what caused the explosions and how the men died.

The commission is also charged with examining the search and rescue operation following the blasts and making recommendations on how similar disasters can be prevented.

The hearings are scheduled to start at Greymouth District Court tomorrow morning.

Justice Panckhurst will be assisted by David Henry, former Inland Revenue Commissioner and head of the Electoral Commission, and Stewart Bell, mine safety and health commissioner for the Queensland state government.

Families' spokesman Bernie Monk, who lost his miner son Michael, said he hoped the commission would find out the truth so the tragedy would not be repeated.

He said New Zealand had failed to learn from similar mine disasters overseas and he hoped the commission would not make the same mistake again.

"There is going to be a change in mining in New Zealand because of Pike River and all this must come out in the Royal Commission," Mr Monk said.

While he would have liked the commission to have been able to get into the mine, he was still confident the commission would reach the truth.

"I'm very impressed with the people in charge of the commission and that they are going to do their upmost to get the truth for us."

He said the families would be well represented throughout the hearings and would meet daily.

While the families had been told what was likely to come up during the proceedings, Mr Monk said he was still concerned the commission could reveal "heart-breaking" information which they did not know about.

The hearings have been broken up into four phases, the first - focusing on New Zealand's regulatory environment and the geography, approval and development of the mine - beginning tomorrow and ending on July 22.

Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder is scheduled to give evidence tomorrow .

A spokesperson for the commission told NZPA Dr Elder would be cross-examined after telling the commission that factors at Pike River Coal Ltd had "significant potential to be at the root cause of generating a wide range of safety risks".

Chief executive of Pike River Coal Ltd, now in receivership, Peter Whitall is scheduled to testify during the second week.

Hearings for the second phase, scheduled for September 5 to 23, will explore the search and rescue operation, and the cause of the deaths.

The third phase will explore the cause of the explosions and Pike River Coal's practises, while the last will focus only on international policies governing mining. Hearing dates for the final two phases are yet to be announced.

The commission has to report its findings no later than March 31, 2012.


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