Families slam ex-mine manager's 'unforgivable' email

Angry Pike River Mine families have slammed the former mine manager for sending an email about a new job 17 minutes after the explosion that killed 29 men underground.

Doug White's emails caused an upset when revealed at the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Greymouth today.

Doug White started as operations manager at Pike River in January 2010, becoming general mine manager a month before the disaster in November.

Previously, numerous witnesses have told the inquiry they thought things had been improving under his management.

Within 15 minutes of the 3.45pm explosion on November 19, 2010, there was a bad "gunpowder'' smell on the surface, all monitoring underground had been lost, and surface staff were unable to contact the 29 men in the mine.

But at 4.02pm, Mr White sent two emails, including one to Solid Energy in which he asked them to call him back about a job he was interested in, and another saying he was currently free to talk.

"This was while my boy was dying,'' one distraught relative cried out today, before leaving the courtroom in tears.

Mr White explained to the hearing: "At the time I sent those emails I had absolutely no idea at all there was a major incident at the mine.''

Five days before the disaster, he told a recruitment agency he wanted to move on, saying "they won't be making me a scapegoat''.

He had recently taken stockbrokers underground and "honestly'' told them that the hydro monitor could be going better, and the hardness of the coal was causing problems.

He was later called into chief executive Peter Whittall's office and told that his comments had caused the Pike River Coal Ltd share price to fall seven cents.

When he checked for himself afterwards, he found the share price had fallen three cents the day before the investors had even visited the mine.

Speaking outside the hearing, families' spokesman Bernie Monk said sending the email on the afternoon of November 19 was "unforgivable'', and something Mr White now had to live with.

However, he credited him with appearing before the commission while others had refused.

Mr White was examined for hours about gas monitoring in the mine. He said some parts of the gas monitoring system were in place when he arrived at Pike River, and he assumed they were being run correctly.

Whenever gas levels spiked he always investigated, he said.

But the commission heard that when the vital sensor at top of the ventilation shaft was calibrated on November 4, it was wet and muddy, giving different readings than the one at the bottom.

Mr White said he was not aware of the discrepancy at the time, or that one sensor had `flatlined'.

Mine experts have said they think it did this after being exposed to methane greater than 5 per cent after the mine was gassed out one day.

At one stage a crucial sensor was not working for two and a half months.

"I would have expected them (problems) to be picked up during the calibration process at the very minimum. I would have expected that information to be passed on,'' Mr White said.

In fact, there appears to have been little calibration in the months before the disaster. When a fault was uncovered on one monitor, it was not replaced.

Mr White said he had the whole workforce trained in how to detect warning signs of spontaneous combustion.

At the time of the disaster, gas alarm log books were to be developed, and a ventilation expert was to be trained.

Mr White's lawyer John Haigh QC told the commission he had not seen any evidence to suggest the police would charge him, but he repeatedly advised Mr White not to answer questions today to avoid self-incrimination.

- Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

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