Fresh air haven at Pike River not working

The smoke-filled fresh air base that Pike River Mine survivor Daniel Rockhouse staggered to had been decommissioned, and a new one was just weeks away from being installed, the Royal Commission of Inquiry was told today.

The commission ground to a halt several times this morning as former general manager Doug White was cross-examined, amid concerns he could self-incriminate for a potential prosecution by the police or Department of Labour.

Under examination from the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union lawyer Nigel Hampton QC, Mr White said the fresh air base was originally an airlock.

However, Mr Rockhouse reported the brattice was rolled up, so it was smoky and not sealed.

Mr White said the base had recently been decommissioned after a new one was put in by the slimline shaft, deeper inside the mine. There was no purpose-built fresh air base in the mine, he conceded.

The self-rescuers, with 30 minutes' oxygen, had been moved to the new base but he thought there was still a phone and compressed air at the old one.

In fact, the commission heard earlier this week that when Mr Rockhouse got there, he found no self-rescuers, no first aid kit, a disconnected phone and no vented air.

A proper, sealed fresh air base further into the mine was just "a matter of weeks'' away from being installed, Mr White said.

His lawyer advised him not to answer a question on whether the mine development had stopped it being built sooner.

Mr White said the ventilation shaft escapeway at Pike River would not have been allowed in Queensland. Further questioning on this was also shut down.

"Why didn't you pick up the fact there had been an explosion for some 41 minutes?'' Mr Hampton asked.

Mr White said live images of the blast taken at the portal were playing in the command room, but the staff member had six screens and would have been watching the ones showing a fault.

It did not occur to him that people were not answering the phones underground because they were incapacitated.

Mr White also revealed the new fresh air base was not the only thing pending. Damaged smokelines - which miners could use to navigate to safety if the mine was filled with smoke - were to be replaced and extended.

Statutory management of the mine was taken over by the police on the night of the blast but Mr White said he was not told.

It was unusual for the manager not to have control of such a situation, he said.

He believed there should have been more emphasis put on the advice from the experts on site, including himself.

The tag system was "not inconsistent'' with Australian practice. However, on November 19, there were at least two tags on the board for people who were not in the mine at all, and at least one of the men who died had not put his tag on the board.

The mine's emergency response plan was not tested in his time at Pike River, Mr White said.

Lawyer for the police, Simon Moore, said a Solid Energy vehicle was parked about 30m into the drift the day after the explosion. Mr White was not on duty when that happened.

It had a top speed of 5kph, so was there to save time if a rescue was launched, Mr White suggested.

Under cross-examination, he also said he first viewed an image from underground of an open box containing self-rescuers soon after the second explosion. This image has prompted speculation that someone survived the blast.

A smaller, wooden box with firefighting equipment was sited close by; the lid on this one was opened far further.

Similar boxes were brought into court today, but the line of questioning then abruptly stopped.

-Greymouth Star

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