Taking the stand at the inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster last year, New Zealand Mines Rescue Service general manager Trevor Watts said sealing the mine earlier would have also enabled the mine to open at a later date as well as allow for the collection of evidence, which could have determined the cause of the blast.
Mines Rescue first recommended the mine be sealed on November 21, three days before the second explosion.
But Pike River Coal refrained from heeding Mines Rescue advice because they wanted to maintain the possibility of life.
Watts told the inquiry the mine should have been sealed “a lot sooner than it was”
“No decision was made about sealing the mine despite recommendations from MRS to do so,” he said.
“The delay and lack of decision in this regard severely affected the outcome of the recovery.
“There was resistance from Pike earlier on in the rescue operation to accept the fact that the 29 workers trapped were likely to have died shortly after the first explosion.”
Watts also criticised PRC for not acting on a formal recommendation to seal the mine once the second explosion went off.
“After the second explosion it should have been a simple decision to block the air going into the mine and prevent further explosions, but no one was prepared to make that call,” he said.
“The sealing of the mine needed to occur urgently but it still took another four days after the second explosion, with subsequent or damaging explosions in the interim before the decision to seal was made.”
Watts said he “understood” why mine manager Stephen Ellis had been optimistic at the chance of survival, but said Mines Rescue believed most of the men would have been killed immediately or been quickly overcome by noxious gasses or lack of oxygen.
He said men who had donned their self-rescuers would have been unlikely to survive for longer than the duration of the self-rescuers.
Pike River Coal chief executive officer Peter Whittall was again accused of giving families false hope, this time regarding the recovery effort at the mine.
Watts said Whittall’s comments to the media about bringing the boys home before Christmas was an announcement that should have never been made.
Watts said his comments were made without information about the timeline of a recovery effort and the comments then hindered decisions being made on and offsite.
More than ten months on from the explosion, the bodies have still not been recovered.
Hopes that the bodies will be recovered continue to slide, with a proposal for a reconnaissance walk into the mine being dismissed by Ellis.
The inquiry heard that Mines Rescue had rarely rescued miners after an explosion, but Watts said they had recovered bodies and would do “whatever we can” to assist in the recovery effort.
Watts said Mines Rescue was willing to walk in to the mine subject to a further risk assessment.