Resuming evidence yesterday at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the deaths of 29 miners last year, Pike River Coal’s statutory mine manager Stephen Ellis said the mine was the safest it had been since last year’s explosion.
However he stopped short of raising hopes that the mine was now safe to enter, saying the mine’s atmosphere was too unstable.
“It’s fuel-reach inert … so if we were to introduce oxygen into the mine that wouldn’t be a good thing,” Ellis said.
Ellis said he believed ventilating the drift was safer than sending people into the mine’s current atmosphere, which was 97% full of methane gas.
Pike River families lawyer Richard Raymond told the inquiry New Zealand Mines Rescue was considering entering the mine to look for bodies and possible sealing areas, but Ellis made it clear that a re-entry was not an ideal move.
“I am not in favor of a reconnaissance walk,” he said.
“What if somebody falls over, what if somebody breaks their mask, what if within twelve seconds they're a cabbage?
“The proposal I've put together involves placing a remote seal at the top of the drift, [enabling workers to] re-ventilate the drift and be able to work in the drift.”
Ellis said his plan to re-ventilate the mine would be safer than “sending people to an irrespirable atmosphere”
He said he was not prepared to put his name on a risk assessment document concerning a reconnaissance.
QC Raymond understood Ellis’s concerns but said the families of the deceased miners had a “desperate need for answers”
Ellis acknowledged this would be frustrating for the families to hear, but it was the safest option.
Ellis, who had only been with the mine eight weeks before the first explosion last November, told the inquiry that the day of the second explosion on November 24 was a “milestone”
“That was another milestone day, if you like, over 100 people were laid off and again, a real lowering of morale at the place, we’re down to around 20 people currently,” Ellis said.
Raymond suggested to Ellis that Pike River Coal was only interested in the sale of the mine and not concerned with recovering the bodies before a sale was made.
“Pike River Coal’s focus isn't it, Mr Ellis, is on creating this remote seal, by Christmas, ready for sale,” Raymond said.
“Its focus is not on assisting the families, this commission, investigating agencies on getting into the drift beyond 1800 metres, is it?”
Ellis said he was not in a position to answer the question.
The inquiry also heard of a stark contradiction in Ellis’s evidence towards his opinions of survival at the mine.
Ellis first said he thought survival was possible after the first explosion, saying "people do survive" mine explosions if they avoided the debris.
He said he held hopes of survival in the mine up until the second explosion.
This view was quickly contradicted when under cross-examination he said he had told Pike survivor Daniel Rockhouse that everyone in the mine would have been killed instantly.
He revealed he was asked by safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse to talk to Daniel Rockhouse, who was overwhelmed by guilt at having survived the explosion.
Ellis said he told Neville Rockhouse the miners may be "rendered unconscious or dead" after the first explosion.
Ellis tried to justify his differing opinions saying "he tried to help the boy", believing it was the right thing to do in the situation.