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An electrician sent to investigate why power had been lost inside the Pike River Mine could see a man lying in the roadway only 2m ahead of him but, unable to breathe and fearing he would die, had to retreat.
Mattheus Strydom was giving evidence for phase two of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, which began in Greymouth today.
He was working outside the mine on the day of the fatal explosion, November 19, when he was told there had been a power outage and communications had gone down.
This worried him, as the system had battery back-up, and he feared a blast, or a large rockfall had severed the cables.
He took a vehicle from the McConnell Dowell crew and said to the deputy: "I hope this isn't bad.''
The portal sub-station had power, so he realised the trip must have been at the pit bottom. He said he could have refused to go underground, but there were men down there and he knew it was vital to restore ventilation.
"As I looked up the tunnel I looked at my watch. I recall thinking something didn't feel right. I could smell cordite, it was a smell like car exhaust fumes.
"As I drove up the drift I noticed that the reflector sticks were not on the conveyor and I realised that was why it was so dark.''
He then saw that the roadway canvas vent cans and water channels had been ripped off the roof.
As he drove deeper into the tunnel the smell got worse. He then saw a vehicle, about 1500m in, and felt relief as it meant someone was waiting for him to go past.
But when he got closer, he saw Russell Smith lying in the roadway on his back, arms above his head, only 2m away. Unable to breathe, and with his own vehicle losing power, "I believed I was going to die''.
Mr Strydom said he remembered his training - "save yourself and went in reverse as fast as I could''.
He thought Mr Smith had been blown over backwards, and had died instantly. In fact, he had survived and was later rescued by fellow survivor Daniel Rockhouse.
At one stage Mr Strydom stopped, wanting to go back and get Mr Smith, but remembered he could not breathe further in the tunnel.
Earlier in this morning's session, Detective Senior Sergeant Nigel Hughes presented a map of the last sightings, showing where the 29 men were believed to have been working at the time of the blast.
However, there was time between the last sightings, and explosion it was close to a shift changeover for the men to move about underground. The mine was not being actively mined at the time of the blast.
It is impossible to be definitive with the locations.
Altogether, 55 people had been in the mine or on the surface on November 19. A whole shift left the mine almost an hour before the blast, at 3.44pm, while McConnell Dowell staff left only four minutes beforehand.
The men working deepest inside the mine were about 700m from Spaghetti Junction. As there was no mining occurring, some had been redeployed and were manually stone-dusting the mine walls.
As the shift ended at 4pm, they were probably heading towards a meeting point at Spaghetti Junction on their way out.
Mines Rescue initially thought the deadly Pike River blast could have been caused by gas leaking around a drainage line seal.
The commission's own chronologies, detailing what happened in the hours and days after the blast, were released this morning.
They note that on November 23, mine employee Les Treddinick reported to Pike River management that gas was leaking around a drainage line seal on November 17.
Mines Rescue considered this was a potential cause of the explosion.
Phase two, which examines the search and rescue effort, will hear evidence from 26 people over the next three weeks.
The court will also hear the 111 call, and see video footage of blasts taken from the portal.
The hearing continues.
- Greymouth Star