Whittall took fall for Pike tragedy: lawyer

THE lawyer for former Pike River Coal chief executive officer Peter Whittall has lashed out at the mine’s former directors for being absent throughout an inquiry into the Pike River explosion, claiming Whittall became a scapegoat over the incident.
Whittall took fall for Pike tragedy: lawyer Whittall took fall for Pike tragedy: lawyer Whittall took fall for Pike tragedy: lawyer Whittall took fall for Pike tragedy: lawyer Whittall took fall for Pike tragedy: lawyer

Peter Whittall.

Lauren Barrett

Twenty-nine men lost their lives on November 19, 2010, which resulted in three parties, including Whittall, being charged for the tragedy.

The Pike hearings commenced in July last year and came to an end yesterday at the Greymouth District Court with Whittall’s lawyer, Stacey Shortall, closing the inquiry.

Shortall said the long-running inquiry into the disaster was ultimately about a dream ending and lives being shattered.

“Before Pike River became synonymous with the tragic explosion that occurred on the 19th of November 2010, the underground coal mine was heralded as a showcase for modern mining in this country,” Shortall said.

Shortall said the mine had been former Pike CEO “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.

Ward had been the company director until six weeks before the explosion when Whittall took over the position.

Despite Ward leaving Pike River shortly before the explosion took place, Shortall said he had managed to escape the inquiry without having to give evidence and without being subjected to similar criticism encountered by Whittall.

Ward was asked by the commission to attend the inquiry but he was overseas at the time and declined to cooperate.

“[Ward has] refused to come before you,” Shortall said.

“He’s provided no witness statement and yet he drew no fire from my learned friends.”

Shortall suggested this proved it was “better to hide than stand up”

She also singled out the former directors of Pike River who had also been absent from the inquiry, including Tony Radford, Arun Jagatramka and Dipak Agarwalla.

In total, only six of the 15 people in senior management positions submitted evidence to the commission.

“My clients had not shirked from their responsibility and involvement at Pike River,” Shortall said.

“They have not hidden from public gaze.”

She said her clients had unfairly shouldered the blame for the tragedy.

Whittall held the position of general manager before being appointed CEO at Pike River and became the public face of the company after the tragic explosion.

Shortall said these factors made it easy to direct blame onto Whittall.

“In this inquiry, if you have to shift any blame, who could be a more convenient fall guy than Peter Whittall?” she asked.

Shortall quoted French historian and philosopher Voltaire in her submission, saying “We owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only truth.”

However, she reminded the commission that despite phase 3 of the inquiry attempting to determine exactly what happened at Pike, the truth was there were still many unknowns.

“The truth is that 16 months after the tragic explosion, after the extensive police and Department of Labour investigations, after 10 weeks of hearings before you, we do not know where the explosion happened, what caused the methane source or what caused the ignition,” she said.

“The truth regrettably is that we are all left speculating.”

In light of the speculation, Shortall said evidence and submissions to the inquiry tried to pin blame on the likes of Whittall, former mine manager Stephen Ellis and the Pike board.

She said this blame was unsubstantiated.

“There is no conclusive evidence that anything any of these men did or did not do caused the explosions,” she said.

“The truth is that they cannot be fairly scapegoated before you on the evidence that stands.”

Shortall continued to defend her client’s actions throughout the final day of hearings.

In her submission, she traced back to key issues mentioned in each separate phase of the inquiry.

Highlighting the criticisms drawn towards the installation of the second means of egress, Shortall reminded the inquiry this element and many other components of the mine’s design, were made before her clients became directors or managers.

Shortall referenced the evidence of Neville Rockhouse who criticised Whittall for not attending a planned climb up the shaft in 2009.

It was widely agreed in evidence that the shaft, implemented as an emergency escape route, was almost impossible to climb.

Shortall said the reason Whittall had not climbed the shaft was because Ward required him to attend to office work that day “instead of participating”

Shortall also questioned evidence in the inquiry attacking the location of the fresh air base.

“There is no conclusive evidence before you that had the fresh air base at Pike been in a different location or of a different standard on 19 November, 2010, any of the men would not have died,” she said.

Concluding the hearings, Commission chairman Justice Graham Panckhurst said the inquiry drawing to a close was a milestone for the participants but mostly for the families.

Next week the commission will determine its policy direction.

Despite the end of the public hearings, Panckhurst said the commission remained open for business as there was a long way to go until formulating recommendations were reached.

The inquiry will hand down its findings in September this year.