Pike River mine re-entry refused

By Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

Mines Rescue personnel have been prevented from re-entering the Pike River mine by the mine managers. Photo / APN
Mines Rescue personnel have been prevented from re-entering the Pike River mine by the mine managers. Photo / APN

Pike River families' hopes of a mine re-entry were quashed by the mine managers' refusal to allow a bid by Mines Rescue volunteers.

In a day of gruelling cross-examination at the Royal Commission of Inquiry today, the Department of Labour was also grilled on whether it - and not only the police - was a decision-maker in the mine rescue efforts after the November 19 disaster.

Other witnesses have accused the department of holding up critical decision-making, and at one stage of the inquiry today a family member stormed out of the courtroom crying "shame on you'' as the Department of Labour deputy chief executive Lesley Haines discussed sealing the mine.

Mrs Haines said the department did not make decisions, the police did.

Solid Energy lawyer Craig Stevens then produced an email Mrs Haines sent to police which said nothing had come to her staff in Greymouth for formal approval.

Mr Stevens also produced written evidence that Department of Labour staff used the word approving and approved, at one stage even giving bulletpoints listing conditions for a vehicle to go underground.

Mrs Haines reiterated that the police were the decision-makers at Pike River, but Mr Stevens replied they were one of the decision-makers.

The department had the power to issue a prohibition notice if necessary, to prevent serious harm from a re-entry.

However, the court saw evidence that some police wrongly thought the Department of Labour was making decisions, while other police considered the decision to re-enter the mine was a joint one.

Mrs Haines said the department had the power of veto.

Mr Stevens asked how the police, and her own staff, kept getting it wrong. The prohibition notice had been hard to communicate, Mrs Haines said.

A risk assessment to send a robot underground was rejected, and the department said its inspectors were heading to the site to work on it. By that stage more than 12 hours had passed.

"Do you accept that the three-tier structure was inefficient?''

Mrs Haines agreed that more operational decisions could have been made at the mine.

Earlier, the commission was told Mines Rescue recently agreed to re-enter the mine but the mine manager refused to send their risk assessment to an advisory panel to be signed off.

Families' lawyer Richard Raymond said statutory mine manager Steve Ellis had not sent a Mines Rescue risk assessment on a walk-in to the Pike River Coal Ltd receivers advisory panel, prompting angry murmurs from the family members in court.

"Now, when Mines Rescue are at last agreed, their old nemesis Pike River Coal is again saying `no, you can't go in,'' Mr Raymond said.

But Mr Ellis said a remote seal deep underground, and re-ventilating the tunnel was safer than sending men into an irrespirable atmosphere.

He had statutory responsibility for the mine: ``What if someone falls over , breaks their mask, within 12 seconds they're a cabbage?''

Under questioning, Mr Ellis also said soon after the first blast, he had visited Daniel Rockhouse, and sat on the deck with the New South Wales Mines Rescue black bible book, explaining explosions and that the men were dead.

"Neville (Daniel's father) had asked me to go and speak to Daniel because he was feeling guilt over the explosion, being a survivor. I thought the best way to help that lad was to say `it's not your fault, son.''

Those comments that the men did not survive the first blast had been taken out of context, he said.

He had gone specifically to help Daniel, and told him the people were dead to comfort him. In fact, he thought some men in a dead-end part of the mine may have survived using compressed air.

The inquiry continues.


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