Miners' families given 'false hope'

FAMILIES of the 29 miners who perished in the Pike River mine disaster last year have given a heartbreaking account of how they were falsely led to believe the men could still be alive.
Miners' families given 'false hope' Miners' families given 'false hope' Miners' families given 'false hope' Miners' families given 'false hope' Miners' families given 'false hope'

Image courtesy of NZ Police.

Lauren Barrett

Seven relatives of the victims gave evidence at the inquiry yesterday, telling the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Greymouth how they were mislead by management.

Carol Rose, whose son Ben died at the Pike River mine, said she was “gobsmacked” when Pike River Coal chief executive officer Peter Whittall implied at a briefing with the families the men would return from the mine.

“Peter Whittall walked into the hall with a mine map under his arm and proceeded to tell the families that the men could be at one of the fresh air bases and would be hungry when they came out,” Rose said.

She told the inquiry the sense of hope created by Whittall was “cruel”, despite herself believing that the miners were dead.

“Peter Whittall talked about experts, gas levels and safety but the whole basis of his talk was about hope,” she said.

“He told us about fresh air bases, compressed airlines, self-rescuers and how sure he was that the men would be coming out.”

The glimmer of hope that the men could still be alive after such a tragedy was further revealed when Marty Palmer took the stand.

With more than 19 years experience in underground mines, Palmer said he was “horrified” by the false information given to the families.

He said the families were being told by management the men could be alive because they would have water and air.

"In short they were given false hope,” he said.

Spokesman for the families Bernie Monk, whose son perished in the mine, later told the inquiry the families were being denied the truth during the days following the November 19 explosion.

“If they had the truth the families would have been able to prepare and make judgements,” he said.

“They were given hope for a full five days … I think it was wrong to be given such hope.

"It was painful to watch the rest of my family go through phases of what I thought was false hope.”

Monk said he had already “locked” in his mind that his son Michael wasn't going to come home.

Monk also criticised the communication between the families and management, telling the inquiry vital information that should have been shared with the families was continually suppressed.

He said video footage of the portal explosion showed to the families was edited down from 52 seconds to 32 seconds, which he believed gave the impression that the blast was not that bad.

Whittall told them the whole footage was not shown because it was irrelevant.

Monk informed the inquiry that information about gas levels in the mine, which showed an atmosphere that could not sustain life, was also not passed on to the families, while advice from the fire service that recommended planning for mass fatalities was not disclosed to the families.

Sonya Rockhouse, who lost one son in the disaster, said the tragedy never should have happened.

In her testimony she referred to the Brunner Mine disaster in the late 1890s, where 65 men perished.

“A hundred years on and still we've learnt nothing,” Rockhouse said.

At one point in the inquiry the courtroom filled with applause after hearing Rockhouse’s plea to recover the bodies.

“The bodies of the men belong to us, the families,” she said.

“Until I have something that I can grieve over then none of us are ever going to have any closure.”

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