Police quizzed over lack of Pike River Mine expertise

Police were today quizzed over their lack of expertise at a hearing into the Pike River mine disaster.

The police appointed themselves in charge, and held all the main control positions at the mine, in Greymouth and in Wellington, with more than 300 staff involved.

However, at times, crucial information took days to reach police headquarters in Wellington, where key decisions were made, well away from the mining experts gathered at the mine site.

Mr Bell said he was "surprised'' police Assistant Commissioner Grant Nicholls did not transfer incident control - a post held by Superintendent Gary Knowles in Greymouth - to a specialist on the ground, as would have happened in other countries.

"Why wasn't there a first-class coal person on that expert panel in Wellington?'' Mr Bell asked today.

To earn that qualification people were tested in emergency situations.

Mr Nicholls said that in hindsight, having such a person on the panel advising the police would have been useful.

"If you look at the range of people available ... on the ground, there was a lot of expertise there that could have been brought to bear,'' Mr Bell said, prompting mutterings of "hear, hear'' from family members in the public gallery.

Commission head Justice Graham Panckhurst then suggested Mr Nicholls had gone against the incident management guidelines by himself making operational decisions, and making them off the West Coast.

If the policy was followed, Mr Knowles in Greymouth should have done that.

"Can you not see ... scope for the view that the police should be the lead agency in a major exercise such as this, but that when it comes to incident controller ... that that person might need to come from an outside agency, like Mines Rescue Service ... to bring that technical expertise?'' Justice Panckhurst said.

The commission today learned that the existence of footage of the explosion taken from the portal, the exact number of people underground, and the potential use of the GAG machine to make the mine inert, took days to reach Wellington.

Some plans had to go from the mine, to Greymouth, Wellington - and sometimes back again - for the final sign off.

Mr Nicholls personally visited the mine site twice in the 10 days after the November 19 blast.

At 2pm on November 20, in a formal briefing at police headquarters, documents suggest there was still confusion over how many men were missing. However, just six hours earlier at a media briefing, Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whitall had announced there were 29 unaccounted for underground.

Mr Nicholls said the confusion was around nationalities and name spellings.

A panel to debate survivability was not convened until about November 25. Mines Rescue had already determined almost immediately that all the men were probably dead. However, that decision did not reach the police hierarchy at the time, while other groups concluded the mine was on fire.

Mr Nicholls only became aware the GAG was an option four days later. The experts at Pike River recommended it, but the expert panel in Wellington said it did not have enough information to make a decision and felt it was not urgent.

Within 24 hours of the disaster, seven first-class mine managers, New Zealand and Queensland Mines Rescue, and Simtars were available.

Some senior people on site still believed mine managers Gordon White and Steve Ellis were in charge the day after the blast; in fact police had taken over the night before.

Questioned today, Mr Nicholls said the task was "complex'' and the incident management group too large.

Superintendent Knowles is expected to take the stand this afternoon.

- Greymouth Star

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