Pike River families say they were given false hope

Pike River families were not told a fire was blazing underground and were given false hope their men could emerge safely and hungry, their lawyer told the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Greymouth today.

Mines Rescue and State-owned miner Solid Energy maintained from very early on that there was a methane fire deep underground as a result of the first explosion on Friday, November 19.

Mines Rescue did not believe any of the 29 men underground at the time had survived.

However, Pike River Mine chief executive Peter Whittall told the families and the public that the men could be sitting, waiting to be rescued.

At 6.30pm on the Sunday after the explosion, a police headquarters' briefing document said it was likely there was a significant fire.

The Fire Service also said it appeared the mine was on fire.

But it took until four days after the blast for police to convene a panel of experts, minus Mines Rescue, to debate survivability. In the interim there was hopeful talk of the men emerging hungry after sucking from an airline, which had falsely raised hopes, families' lawyer Richard Raymond said.

Police Assistant Commissioner Grant Nicholls, during an entire day of questioning today, said relatives should have been told about the fire at the 7am briefing two days after the explosion.

In fact, they learned about it only after the second blast.

"I can't explain why this didn't occur. It was a significant issue and should have been shared with the families,'' Mr Nicholls said.

Mr Nicholls was calling the shots on the entire rescue effort from police headquarters in Wellington.

Solid Energy lawyer Craig Stevens said the second and more powerful explosion could have been avoided: "Sealing the mine ... with double doors on the portal and fresh air running, may have in fact preserved life.

"The point I'm putting to you, deputy commissioner, is the police and Department of Labour attitude stopped even the experts having the debate of this scenario.''

Police also knew an image of an open self-rescue box had been taken back in November, but families found out through a different source on March 31.

Mr Stevens and the lawyer for Mines Rescue also told the commission not enough weight had been given to Mines Rescue advice and Solid Energy's expertise, with offshore experts favoured instead.

Mr Nicholls earlier admitted he had 'Googled' Mines Rescue soon after the blast to learn more about the organisation.

Mines Rescue maintained the Pike River 29 almost certainly died immediately or soon afterwards, but Mr Nicholls said police headquarters did not know that.

Four days after the explosion he was still unaware there were, in fact, no rescue chambers underground.

Mr Stevens said that was what happened when information was filtered from the mine, to Greymouth, to Wellington, then offshore to an Australian mining expert.

Solid Energy, which sent seven certified first-class coal managers to Pike River immediately after the blast, was intensely frustrated their expertise was not used, he said.

Neither Solid Energy nor Mines Rescue was mentioned once in Mr Nicholls' 80-page brief to the Royal Commission.

Responding to that, Mr Nicholls said their contribution was appreciated.

Mr Stevens said Solid Energy thought the police viewed offshore experts as more valuable than the locals.

At the end of evidence today, the commission was told there are currently plans to drop down into the mine new cameras with lights which can see up to 50m underground.

Mr Nicholls said that would happen within a fortnight.

He said Mines Rescue volunteers were keen to do a walk in; the Pike River Coal receivers have a different view and felt it was still not safe.

- Greymouth Star

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