He's been at the helm of the Pike River Mine disaster, unable to provide answers to the questions the world wanted answered. Next, delivering news no one wanted to hear.

Tasman police district boss Superintendent Gary Knowles appeared during a difficult week as the hard-faced cop, heading first a rescue, then a recovery operation.

His exterior was at times prickly - in stark contrast to Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, who appeared open, honest and natural.

While Mr Whittall received a rare round of applause from media on Wednesday after revealing that a second explosion had taken place, it took until yesterday for Mr Knowles to be applauded during a meeting with the lost men's families.

Colleagues and friends of Mr Knowles, a 52-year-old police officer of 33 years' experience, say he is a no-nonsense cop, which may be why he comes across as a bit rigid.

But the public perception is wrong, they say.

'He is like the rest of us," Superintendent Grant O'Fee says of his colleague and friend of more than 30 years.

"We're very good at putting up this veneer. But of course, once that's scratched away, it's just another human being underneath it when the blue paint's scraped off."

Mr Knowles was a straight-talker who liked to "do it once, do it right", another colleague said, an attitude evident early on when he said he wasn't going to run a "half-arsed" operation by sending rescuers in and risking more lives - words media trainer Greg Ward says didn't help win affection.

Slang and police jargon, such as his use of the term "a multi-agency approach", didn't endear him to the public.

He said "I", not "we", which meant the public blamed him and the police instead of the experts advising them, Mr Ward said.

Ironically, when Mr Knowles stood up for himself after being called a "local country cop" by an Australian journalist, he commanded people's respect, Mr Ward said.

Mr Knowles served mainly in cities, with 28 years in Wellington and 3 years in Christchurch before a promotion two years ago when he moved to Nelson.

"He's the last person to be a country cop," Mr O'Fee said.

"He's a very snappy dresser, a bit of a lounge lizard - I always call him that ... when this guy said country cop, I thought: 'Oh mate, you could not be further from the bloody mark, this guy's a bloody city slicker from way back'."

Mr O'Fee says he and Mr Knowles had "staggered through" the Coast to Coast multisport race last year under the team name "old Broken Arses". It was the second time Mr Knowles, a cyclist and runner, had competed.

Detective Inspector Peter Read also competed in the Coast to Coast and worked alongside Mr Knowles.

"Everyone that's worked for him would say he's a really good boss - one of those people that people are loyal to ... he doesn't suffer fools."

Using research from overseas, Mr Knowles implemented a "one-way door" policy in Christchurch, which means patrons can't bar-hop after 1am, to reduce violent crime and disorder. After some success, he wants to introduce the lockdown in Nelson.

Mr Read said Mr Knowles' hard exterior may have covered the emotions he felt. That's something police do to get the job done.

"There's no point in running the operation and standing up front of people and breaking down. You can't. You wouldn't be able to function if you actually did that. Hard decisions have to be made and that's what he's there for."

Gary Knowles
Rank: Superintendent

Age: 52

Joined police: Wellington, aged 18.

Service and CV:
Wellington: 28 years. Head of CIB, member of Drug Squad, officer in charge of the Organised Crime (gang crime) unit, head of the Police National Intelligence Unit specialising in terrorism and South Pacific Crime.

Christchurch: 3.5 years. Area Commander Christchurch Central City.

Nelson: 1.5 years. Superintendent Tasman district which comprises Nelson, Marlborough and the West Coast.