Spelling mistake delayed Pike River risk plan - official

By Laura Mills

Trevor Watts. Photo / Supplied
Trevor Watts. Photo / Supplied

Officials in charge of the Pike River mine after the deadly explosion rejected a Mines Rescue risk assessment because it contained a spelling mistake, it was claimed yesterday.

Mines Rescue Service manager Trevor Watts told the royal commission of inquiry into the mine disaster that if a decision on sealing the mine had been made earlier, the bodies of the 29 men, now entombed by a rockfall caused by subsequent blasts, could have been recovered.

Instead, Mines Rescue was confronted after the first blast with an operational paralysis.

Trying to find out if anyone was alive dominated the situation, even though Mines Rescue - made up of experienced West Coast coal miners - believed the men died in the first blast.

Mr Watts said that even after the second blast, it took four days, and two more explosions, before the decision to seal the mine was made.

One document had to be resubmitted because of a spelling mistake, he said, and officials seemed more concerned with issues of liability.

There was a lack of urgency, and no one on site could make a decision.

It was also hard to keep track of the police personnel on site, as they changed every eight hours.

On the night of the disaster, Mines Rescue could not get information on how many men were missing or where they had been working, and could not find out about the atmosphere inside the mine or whether there were any survivors.

Pike River Coal should have gathered all that information to present to Mines Rescue, Mr Watts said.

McConnell Dowell contractors who left the mine one minute before the first explosion went home without being interviewed by police or Mines Rescue.

Pike River could not provide an up-to-date mine map, so others were printed off and new workings drawn on by hand.

Only four hours after the blast, Mr Watts believed all 29 missing miners were dead. It took police five days to reach the same conclusion.

Mines Rescue thought the shockwave would have killed most immediately, or left them unconscious.

Anyone who used their "self-rescuer" equipment and reached additional ones at the fresh-air base - at the most, 700m away - would have walked out, Mr Watts said.

If they were lying injured, they would have been dead after 30 minutes when their self-rescuers ran out of oxygen.

Mr Watts said if he could do things again, he would knock on the top policeman's door and express his opinion more forcefully.

On the day of the second blast, a working group was looking at a re-entry plan. There were real concerns there could be rockfalls while rescuers were inside, trapping them.

Mr Watts has been criticised for declining to attend two meetings of victims' families.

But he told the commission he knew every man in the mine, including the son of one of his closest friend.

He removed himself, even trying to avoid knowing who was missing, because he wanted to be able to make decisions free of emotion.

He said police should lead a similar event in the future, because they had the resources, but under a different command structure in which the mine manager had more influence.

When it was suggested to him under cross-examination that it might be a myth that a risk assessment was rejected because of a spelling mistake, Mr Watts was unable to give any more detail to back his assertion.

- Greymouth Star

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