The Pike River Coal chief, a man who has spent much of' />

The bags under Peter Whittall's eyes grow almost visibly each time he fronts to the media.

The Pike River Coal chief, a man who has spent much of the past 30 years underground, has been thrust into the crisis spotlight.

Tears have flowed down his cheeks regularly, and while it has been reported he is suffering from an eye infection, none would forgive him for feeling a little emotional.

He hired most of the 29 men still inside the mine while he was manager of Pike River. Over the five years he managed the mine, he grew to know many of them, and their families, intimately. Some of the men are his close personal friends.

The Whittall family moved from Greymouth to Wellington in September, as Mr Whittall took on the role of chief executive. Since then he has spent a couple of days every week in Greymouth and at the mine site, 48km up the road.

And less than two months after taking over the position, he is back full-time, for the worst of reasons.

If anyone understands running coal mines it is this man.

Mr Whittall has 30 years' experience in the underground mining industry, mostly in Australia, working his way up, finally including posts as manager of the Dendobium, Tower and Appin coal mines, in New South Wales.

He has a Bachelor of Engineering (Mining) and a Masters of Business Administration both from the University of Wollongong.

When he was the Pike River mine's manager, he was responsible for on-site construction, mine development and recruitment and was closely involved with recent capital raising.

People who work with him, or have dealt with him during this disaster, say he is one of the "all-round good guys" and have commended him for his communication skills and a good boss.

So far, he has refused to speculate on the welfare of the men still in the mine, or give up hope that some, or all, are alive.

"You don't work in mining unless you're an optimist," he said. "I have to keep believing that there's every chance they are alive." He has been consistently courteous, good humoured, sensible, and patient at press conferences, where he faces relentless questioning from up to 100 media representatives twice daily.

His focus has remained completely on the men and their families, and he spends most of his time with the men's families, keeping them informed and offering reassurance.

His family has arrived to be by his side.

On Monday he told TV3 it felt like he was in a dream."I just keep thinking I can't be living through this."

- Otago Daily Times