His legs shook but his voice never wavered. "They've looked to me for hope," said Peter Whittall, of the families when it came time to tell them all 29 were lost.

Wednesday afternoon and the face of the country's worst mining disaster since 1914 had come to dispel false hope. There had been a second deadly explosion.

Whittall, an Australian, a mining engineer, a business graduate but, importantly, also a miner has fronted in the most trying of circumstances.

Tragedy seeks heroes (and villains). Whittall, 47, from the Illawarra district of New South Wales, coal country, a father of two, was the man for this moment, for this week and for this time in his company's short history. "It was my task and I wanted to tell them," he said.

Whittall encompasses technical expertise, hands-on mining experience, a passion for the industry and its people, a natural affability and rare presenting skills. Amidst hope and grief and with the pressure that 200 journalists can bring, he stood and delivered beyond expectation.

John Dow, Pike River Coal's chairman since 2007, has no doubt that in Whittall he has the right man for the worst task in mining. "He's the most human guy people here could want for a boss," says Dow.

"He knows what makes people tick. He identifies with their wives and kids. Peter employed most of them he played squash with them, drank beer with them. They were his family.

"If he hadn't been born in Wollongong he probably should have been born in Greymouth because the people in Greymouth see him as a Coaster and if you could see the outpouring of love, support and affection that he has received during the past few days it's boosted his sense of belonging to this community.

"In a meeting which he came into with his legs trembling to tell families he didn't think there was any chance any of the staff had survived the second blast ... he described it as the worst moment of his life ... and yet, if you'd seen the number of people who burst into tears and threw their arms around his neck ... "

St Patrick's School in Greymouth is where Whittall's teacher wife Leanne worked and where their daughter, Heather, and young son, Morgan attended. The school motto "Treat others as you would like them to treat you" might as well have been Whittall's. "Peter is ... well, we all love Peter," says St Patrick's principal, Mary-Clare Murphy. "He's just a friend to everyone.

"This week, he has been God-inspired."

She describes Leanne Whittall as "warm, bubbly and a great staff member" who during her four years at the school was selected for good reason by staff to represent them on the board of trustees. "They are great family people, great community people and very supportive of the Pike River family."

Whittall's promotion to CEO took the family to Wellington this year. They had arrived in Greymouth in 2005 when Whittall joined the company as its general manager, responsible for all operational aspects including mine design and development and environment and safety.

Herald energy reporter Grant Bradley toured the mine with Whittall in 2008 and found the veteran of 24 years' experience in underground coal mines for BHP in Australia and South Africa, to be driven, clever, capable and frank, "a stand-up bloke".

There is no facade, says Bradley, he is as he presents. "If you were stuck down a mine, he is the sort you would want down there with you."

Passionate about the quality of coal being mined at Pike River low in sulphur and ash content, a high fluidity count, ideal for use in pot furnaces to make steel it was to Whittall the company turned recently to replace the previous CEO after a history of cost overruns and missed production targets had buffeted the confidence of investors.

Whittall spoke sense in that role too. The company, he said, needed to set more realistic production goals.

He was real this week too, explaining what was happening with gas concentrations, why it was considered unsafe for rescuers to enter the mine. And he did so without the usual verbal tics, as noted by the principal of the town's secondary school, John Paul II High.

"I'm keen on oral presentation and I listened intently for an um or an ah," said Harold Leask.

"There are very few people able to articulate themselves so well that they don't need pauses.

"To me it had a real ring of honestly and sincerity. I thought he did a fantastic job. He's not an office bureaucrat, he works from the ground up."

Whittall's daughter, in Greymouth with other family members this week to support her father, made an impression in her time as a student at Leask's school. "A lovely girl, very popular, intelligent, hardworking, an ideal student ..."

Like the mine disasters at Strongman (19 dead, 1967) and Brunner (65 dead, 1896), Pike River has become part of the coast's history and, suggests Leask, will become a study topic.

The company appears to want to continue mining the seam of 50-odd million tonnes of coal in the Paparoa Ranges through which the Hawera fault runs.

Even before this disaster it had been far from straightforward. The fault has traps and pockets where methane can build up in splintered coal seams.

"Peter's even more determined to make it work," says Dow. "He's an amazing guy."

Much needs to be done in the meantime such as best endeavours to recover the bodies and a commission of inquiry to find the cause of the explosion and assess the performance of the company's safety systems.

These, too, will provide trying times for the company's CEO.

- Additional reporting: Grant Bradley, Catherine Masters

CEO Pike River Coal
Age: 47

Married: Leanne

Children: Two

Education: Bachelor of Engineering (mining), Masters of Business Administration

Coal miner and executive: 30 years