Ward breaks silence over Pike disaster

THE man at the “helm” of New Zealand’s Pike River mine, former chief executive officer Gordon Ward, has finally spoken out about the tragic explosion which took the lives of 29 miners 18 months ago, offering his condolences to the families of the Pike victims.
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Pike River Coal CEO Gordon Ward.

Lauren Barrett

Ward was the company director until six weeks before the explosion, when Peter Whittall took over the position.

Whittall had been general manager of the mine for five years and CEO for less than two months when the explosion hit.

During the latest phase of a Royal Commission Inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster, Whittall’s lawyer Stacey Shortall said the mine had been “Gordon Ward’s baby”

“Mr Ward was at the helm of the Pike River project for at least 12 years through to the time that hydromining commenced,” she said.

While Ward had been the backbone of the Piker River project, he managed to escape giving evidence at the inquiry into the explosion because he was overseas at the time and declined to cooperate.

The commission was unable to order anyone who was overseas to give evidence but he could have submitted his evidence in writing.

Until now, Ward had not expressed his condolences for the families of the Pike victims.

However, TV One’s Sunday program reportedly found Ward on the Gold Coast where he was allegedly renting a home worth $1.2 million.

While he initially avoided questioning, Ward later caved in and said he was “prepared to say a couple of things”

“First thing is that I have cooperated fully with the Department of Labour and the police and all their inquiries they have done to date,” the news service quoted Ward as saying.

“I have been interviewed by them and they have not pressed any charges against me.

“The second thing I would like to say is, I express my condolences to the families – in fact this is the most important thing – to all the families and all the people affected by the disaster.”

Ward stopped short of answering questions related to his absence at the Pike inquiry.

Despite Ward breaking his silence over the disaster, his compassion was met with hostility.

Grey district mayor Tony Kokshoorn reportedly told Sunday Ward was “trying to show some remorse now for not turning up but that's not going to wash with anyone”

“It's 18 months ago when the families needed support and he wasn't there,” Kokshoorn said.

Meanwhile, families' spokesman Bernie Monk, who lost a son in the explosion, told the New Zealand Herald Ward’s message did not excuse him for his absence at the inquiry.

“The only way he can ever apologise to the families is (to) be cooperative and front up to the commission and I think he owes it to mining and to Pike River and to the families,” Monk reportedly said.

Whittall along with two other parties were charged by the Department of Labour over the disaster which struck on November 19, 2010.

The DOL laid a total of 25 charges against Whittall, VLI Drilling and Pike River Coal, all relating to alleged health and safety failures at the Pike River mine.

A Royal Commission Inquiry into the disaster, which kicked off in July last year and consisted of 10 weeks of hearings, will hand down its findings in September this year.