Pike River inquest concludes

Death certificates will be issued to the families of the Pike River underground coal victims, following an inquest into the tragedy today.

Judge Neil McLean said he was satisfied on the evidence available to him that the deaths of all 29 men occurred “either at the immediate time of the explosion in the mine or a very short time later” on  19 November.

“It’s also clear that the cause of death, although it may well vary in degree between individuals depending on their location, was the result of a substantial explosion,” he said.

He went on to say death was also due to exposure to acute hypoxia.

Judge McLean said he had been involved in the case from the evening of November 19, the day of the initial explosion.

“On the 19th of November at 3:44pm we now know that remote CCTV coverage showed a sustained 50 second blast out of the mine portal”.

Earlier today, the judge said his findings would be brief and concentrate on the “what and where” rather then the “why and whether”.

Nicholas Davidson QC, the lawyer for the families, ran through findings previously read out in court.

Judge MacLean said he became aware of video footage shown to the families and counsel but that it would not be shown at the inquest because it was not relevant.

Two family representatives for each of the 29 men killed attended the inquest, and every seat in the public gallery was occupied.

Superintendent Gary Knowles was called as a witness and said the initial priorities for police and emergency services were whether a rescue a rescue could be undertaken and establishing the number of people trapped.

The miners’ locker room was searched to help with the identification process, the court was told.

The names of the miners and the last time they each had contact with their next of kin was read out and Knowles said many of the wives, partners and relatives saw their loved ones on the morning of the explosions.

He said the first police officer left the Greymouth station at 4:54pm on  19 November and a forward control point was set up by 4am.

Knowles arrived at 12:30am on  20 November and a family welfare centre was set up by 4am.

Daniel Rockhouse, who survived the explosion, but lost his brother  in the tragedy said he saw a “white flash” and was deafened by the explosion, Knowles told the court.

According to Rockhouse, the mine was filling up with smoke and he began to smell carbon monoxide.

he court heard he put on his breathing apparatus but began to panic and removed it and fell unconscious.

He regained consciousness and managed to access fresh air.

He then revived himself and made his way to an underground phone and spoke to the mine manager, Doug White.

He then found another miner, Russell Smith and picked him up to drag him until the point he was able to stand.

They were then able to leave the mine.

Knowles told the court that Smith said the pressure in the mine kept on coming.

On  24 November, an Australian mine ventilation expert arrived in Greymouth and found the level of oxygen was one per cent.

Citing experts, Knowles said the first and second explosion would probably have caused temperatures of up to 2000 degrees Celsius.

The medical opinion of Dr Robin Griffiths sought by police was that the miners would have been unconscious almost immediately following the first explosion and remained so until their deaths a few minutes later.

The court heard that the concentration of carbon monoxide would have been fatal.

A computer-generated map of the mine, including the tunnel’s entrance and where Daniel Rockhouse was at the time of the first explosion was shown to the court and a prepared statement from Doug White outlined the history of the mine.

White was not present in the court.

The movements of the three teams of workers, referred to as A, B and C were outlined in White’s statement, which also said the afternoon shift on a Friday always started one hour earlier than the usual 2pm start time for other week days.

“Toolbox” talks, where workers raised concerns and gave information was a safety practice within the company.

As the “B” crew went into the mine at 7am, the “A” crew came out and between 1pm and 1:30pm, “C” entered.

At 3:50pm, Daniel Dugan was in the control room when he noticed the power in the mine had gone down.

He called general manager Doug White who went to the control room to get a first hand account of what was happening.

He then instructed the main gate not to let people in or out of the site and at 5:02pm, White flew in a helicopter and saw “light or wispy smoke” coming out of the ventilation shaft.

He noticed damage at the vent shaft area and returned to the control room and spoke to Daniel Rockhouse on the phone, telling him to keep low and get out of the mine.

Initially, there was confusion about how many miners were underground and one of the first actions was to ensure no-one removed or added to the ‘tag board’.

A process of elimination was undertaken to establish exactly who was in the mine, using rosters, contractor logs, as well as discussions with contractors and Pike River staff.

Phone calls were then made to miners’ families, the court was told.

The inquest adjourned at 2:30pm.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy is due to conclude by  31 March.
 

 

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