Pike production manager Steve Ellis visited a grieving Daniel Rockhouse following the young miner’s escape from the exploding pit, and consoled him with his view that “all the boys” would have died in the first explosion.
Rockhouse, who had dragged his workmate Russell Smith to safety, was feeling guilt at his survival. In an effort to offer comfort, Ellis referred to the “Black Bible” – the handbook of New South Wales mines rescue – to help explain the nature of explosions. Given the force of the blast, he told Rockhouse that the men who were closer to the source of the explosion would have met with instant unconsciousness or death.
Ellis, who has maintained throughout his testimony that he believed there could have been survivors right up until the second explosion on day five, objected to his conversation with Rockhouse being raised in cross-examination by Richard Raymond, counsel for the Pike families. In a tense exchange, he said he had only been trying to “help the lad”, who had suffered feelings of “immense guilt”.
But Raymond persisted with his line of questioning, suggesting that Pike River Coal had talked the language of “rescue” with the families and the public, while behind the scenes the talk was of a recovery operation. Ellis was alleged to have told a group at the mine site that “outside the room it was still a rescue operation, but within the task room it was clearly a recovery operation”. Ellis said he didn’t recall making that comment, and repeated his view that he had believed in the possibility of survivors.
Raymond put to him that the only realistic interpretation of the known facts following the explosion was that there was no chance of survivors. There was “no effective fresh air base, no refuge, no escape route, [it was] a small mine with a significant 52-second explosion.” Despite the fact the underground phones had been rung repeatedly since the afternoon of the blast, there had been no communication with any of the missing men. It was also known by day three after the first explosion that the compressed air line into the mine had ruptured.
“I still stand by my brief that there was a chance of survival,” Ellis responded.
He also faced aggressive questioning over the current status of mine recovery plans. Ellis, who is now employed by the Pike River receivers as the statutory mine manager, told the commission he had blocked a recent plan by the Mines Rescue Service to make a reconnaissance foray into the tunnel, where the atmosphere is now inert and stable. Raymond said the families were desperate for answers, yet “it’s their old nemesis, Pike River Coal, who is again saying: “No, you can’t go in.”
Ellis has instead proposed injecting a seal around the rockfall that blocks the entrance to the mine workings, and then ventilating the access tunnel – a plan that he says will be completed by Christmas. Raymond alleged Ellis’s proposal was focused “only on getting the mine sold”, and not on assisting the families, the commission or investigating agencies in gaining access to the tunnel.
Also coming under ferocious cross examination yesterday was Lesley Haines, deputy chief executive of the labour group of the Department of Labour. Haines was a key Wellington official involved in overseeing the search and rescue operation. Haines – who did not visit the mine, and was not briefed on its layout or the means by which miners might have self-rescued – admitted she had been unaware of how much technical mining expertise had been at the site following the first explosion.
While gas sampling and mines rescue specialists from around New Zealand and Australia were working intensively to understand the situation underground, Haines and her officials were involved in a paper war over risk assessments. Craig Stevens, counsel for Solid Energy – which deployed several of its experts to the mine to assist during the crisis – accused Haines’s department of “complete inertia” at a time when urgent decisions were required, and of causing confusion over who was in charge of the operation.
Haines said her department had adopted only an advisory role to assist the police, who took charge soon after the first blast. But Stevens recited numerous instances where she and her staff had created the impression it had an approval and decision-making role. The department was also accused of holding up critical work, including the drilling of a bore hole to enable gas sampling. Approval of a risk assessment document prepared by personnel at the mine was held up because it was “too technical” and did not list certain hazards.
The commission also heard that the department had threatened to issue a prohibition notice to block any move to seal the mine in the days after the first explosion. The Mines Rescue Service, which believed there was no chance of survivors, favoured sealing the mine to stabilise the atmosphere and prevent further explosions. But Haines said they would not allow sealing if there remained any possibility of survivors underground.
• The Department of Labour is still investigating the Pike explosion and has until 19 November to decide whether to lay charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. Haines said the Pike disaster was the worst industrial accident in this country for almost a century, and the investigation was the largest ever undertaken by the department.
Cross-examination of Haines continues today.