Police deny raising false hopes after Pike River blast

Police sincerely believed some men survived the first blast at the Pike River Mine last November, assistant commissioner Grant Nicholls told the Royal Commission of Inquiry today.

Police have been criticised for raising false hopes in the days that followed, and for not sealing the mine earlier, which could have prevented the second blast.

Mr Nicholls told the inquiry in Greymouth, that until the second blast he sincerely believed some of the 29 men could have survived and may have been trapped underground.

As response co-ordinator, he gave overall strategic advice and support to the frontline.

Two men had rescued themselves, and mine management who had the best knowledge of the environment, was positive others may have survived, Mr Nicholls said.

Sealing the mine would have killed any survivors.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, speaking a day after the blast, said fresh air was being pumped into the mine, and it was conceivable a large number of men were sitting there, wondering why no one had come to get them.

Company chairman John Dow had also said there were enough self-rescuers for the men to survive a few days, Mr Nicholls said.

Mining expert Dave Cliff had advised them it was possible there were pockets of air in the mine.

More than 300 police were involved in the operation; Mr Nicholls was based in Wellington, incident controller Superintendent Gary Knowles in Greymouth, and forward command at the mine site, 40km north of Greymouth. The final policing bill was about $11 million.

The operation was complex, large, challenging and had the potential to be one with multiple fatalities, Mr Nicholls said.

The commission has been told it took 24 hours to get decisions from Wellington, but Mr Nicholls did not immediately recall anything taking that long. Other decisions, such as sealing the slimline shaft, were made in minutes.

The first blast occurred shortly after the Chilean gold mine rescue, creating high expectations, he said.

But Pike River had no escapeway, there was no GAG machine, used to pump non-volatile gas into the mine to extinguish the fire, and nowhere to dock one.

The commission has already heard it suggested the mine manager should have remained in charge, but Mr Nicholls said it was never suggested any other agency should take a lead role.

Due to mine management's personal and emotional connection with the men, the decision-makers had to have some objectivity. There could also be culpability issues with the mine manager, he said.

Emotion and fatigue presented a cocktail of challenges - people were trying to rescue men they knew.

The team in Wellington scoured the world, bringing the GAG machine in from Australia, and allowing the first international flight into Hokitika.

Police also negotiated with the Dutch for another GAG machine.

The Department of Labour's deputy made herself available 24-7; the agencies worked well and co-operatively.

Mr Nicholls said that in the future, some decisions could be made by the incident controller, who was located at the site. However, other decisions, which could result in multiple fatalities, had to be made by more senior staff.

Mr Knowles had left Nelson for the West Coast after the blast, but was called back to collect body bags.

He recommended emergency mine drills with all agencies, and said planning for this was under way. More operational decisions could be made by an on-site incident controller, and Mr Knowles should not have attended two demanding media, and family briefings each day.

Overall, police said the operation went well, and different agencies had worked collaboratively.

Earlier yesterday, the control room operator at Pike River, Daniel Duggan, who lost his brother Chris in the mine disaster, revealed that he had been speaking to the men underground when the blast happened.

He had just notified them that the water pumps had been turned back on when alarms went off and all communication was lost.

Noise can be heard in the recording (which was not played in court); Mr Duggan said he did not notice this on the day.

At 4.26pm he called Mines Rescue and at 4.35pm, St John. That 111 call was played in court, as some families wept.

Questioned yesterday, Mr Duggan, who had been a miner himself until he hurt his ankle, said the four controllers figured out parts of the system for themselves.

The under-manager on November 19 had not submitted a piece of paper showing where the men would be working. Mr Duggan voiced his concerns with some under-managers about ongoing failures to do so, but did not raise it with higher management.

- Greymouth Star

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