Pike River's Peter Whittall 'attacked'

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 12:43 17/12/2013

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A grieving dad is "gutted" that former Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall has withdrawn his offer to meet families of 29 men killed at the underground West Coast coalmine.

Christchurch man Dean Dunbar, father of the youngest victim, Joseph Dunbar, 17, had agreed to meet Whittall. Two other families told him they also wanted that chance, he said.

"We were willing to put ourselves in an excruciatingly tough position and he's turned us down once again,'' Dunbar said.

"It's his way or no way as it's been from the beginning.

"I was giving Peter a chance to explain himself and to give clarity to some uncertainties we have. It comes as no surprise to me. Our family felt we had to give him a chance. I'm gutted but I expected it."

Whittall's lawyers released a written statement today saying Whittall's offer to meet families had been met "with attacks from many quarters, some of which have been quite inappropriate and derogatory".

"Not only was the offer publicly rejected by family spokespeople, but it was also met with threats of private prosecution and further litigation," his lawyers, Stuart Grieve, QC, and Stacey Shortall, said in the statement.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment on Thursday dropped its 12 health and safety charges against Whittall over the November 2010 disaster. The ministry believed its prosecution would fail, largely due to 14 of its witnesses refusing to give evidence.

As a result of dismissing the charges, former Pike River Coal Ltd directors and officers agreed to pay $3.4 million to families of the 29 men and two blast survivors. The payout would come from insurance money originally covering the cost of Whittall's expected 12 to 16-week trial.

Whittall also offered to meet privately this week in Greymouth with families of the 29 dead men, which prompted much criticism from many families last week.

His lawyers said his offer to meet families "was made sincerely and in good faith in the hope of achieving some reconciliation by Mr Whittall personally expressing his sympathy for the families' suffering".

As a result of the resulting negative reaction, his lawyers advised him against meeting any families, which disappointed Whittall but he had accepted their advice.

"There have been reports that there may be some family members who wish to meet Mr Whittall. Unfortunately, the threat of further litigation would severely constrain what he would otherwise wish to say. Depending on the circumstances, Mr Whittall may be prepared to consider a meeting at a later stage."

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Serial litigant Graham McCready threatened on Friday to seek a private manslaughter prosecution against Whittall and other senior Pike managers. He has since publicly said he would withhold such action after Pike families pleaded with him to abandon his plans.

Spokesman for most Pike families, Bernie Monk, said today it was the families' right to refuse to meet Whittall but some people did want to see him and he should have honoured his offer for them.

"I don't see why he should be having a public slinging match over this,'' Monk said. "Is he trying to make us look like the villains here?"

Most families wanted to wait until the mine had been fully re-entered and all evidence gathered to conclusively prove who was to blame for the tragedy, he said.

"If there are things to answer to, Whittall's got to accept that. We are not asking for anything unreasonable.

"The only reason [Whittall's] charges were withdrawn was because no-one would come back to New Zealand to testify against him.

"At the end of the day, 29 men died here, they were killed in the workplace. Accountability has to be done here and we have to go out and find who is at fault here.

"I think we've got the right to postpone any meeting with him. If we go down the mine and find he is nowhere to fault here, we will have to accept that."

The families had never planned to take a private prosecution over the tragedy and instead hoped that police would use any evidence gleaned from the mine to lay criminal charges in the future, Monk said.

- Stuff

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