Police and experts at odds over mine survivors

The policeman in charge of the Pike River Mine rescue used Google to learn about Mines Rescue, and has admitted he did not know at the time that Mines Rescue experts believed most men would have died almost immediately.

Mines Rescue lawyer Garth Gallaway argued during a whole morning of cross-examination of police Assistant Commissioner Grant Nicholls at the Royal Commission of Inquiry, in Greymouth today, that Mines Rescue should have played a larger role and that too many decisions were made away from the mine site.

Mines Rescue, made up of experienced underground coal miners, believed the initial shockwave on November 19 killed most of the 29 men, or left them unconscious.

That opinion was formed partly after viewing footage of the 52-second initial explosion. However, police headquarters did not know the footage existed until 72 hours after the blast.

Mr Nicholls, who was calling the shots at police headquarters in Wellington, was also not aware at the time that Mines Rescue believed there were no more survivors.

Mines Rescue was not represented on the expert panel that was advising the police.

The day after the explosion the first gas reading indicated the environment underground was unliveable.

Mr Gallaway said police seemed to have based some of their hopes that more men survived on the comments of Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, prompting mutterings from family members in court today.

"It's not a failing - there was a hope the men had survived,'' Mr Nicholls responded under questioning.

The whole picture had to be looked at, he said. Two men had walked out, and police believed there was a fresh air base, and more self-rescuers available underground.

Mr Whittall had said publicly in the days after the blast that the men may be sitting at the end of an airline waiting to be rescued, Mr Nicholls said.

He had also seen comments from Pike Rival Coal chairman John Dow in the media that there were enough self-rescuers underground for people to survive for days.

But Mines Rescue said the only extra self-rescuers were at the slimline shaft, and if the men had reached them they would have been able to walk out.

Mr Nicholls: "Having reflected, I think the men died fairly quickly the difficulty here is there's no exact science.''

Mr Gallaway said the mine could have been sealed, and the men's bodies preserved.

Mr Nicholls said that soon after the blast, he used Google to learn more about Mines Rescue.

At 3am on November 20, just hours after the explosion, the police attended an incident management team meeting and announced they were in charge. Other agencies were not given a reason for this, the inquiry was told.

Mr Gallaway said that under the command structure, police at the site talked to police in Greymouth, who talked to police in Wellington. At times there were up to 14 police at incident management meetings, as shifts changed.

Mines Rescue were not involved when decisions were made in Greymouth or Wellington, or on the risk assessment panel, he said.

Decisions were made in Wellington, but experts including Mines Rescue were at the mine site.

Solid Energy lawyer Craig Stevens said a memo showed the police wanted high level experts, such as professors.

Solid Energy and Mines Rescue were not mentioned once in Mr Nicholls' 80-page brief to the Royal Commission.

Answering that, Mr Nicholls said today their contribution was appreciated.

The hearing continues.

- Greymouth Star

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