Whittall 'inflated Pike River hopes'

Last updated 05:00 16/11/2013
Pike River mine
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
BURNING QUESTIONS REMAIN: Flames shoot out of a ventilation shaft at Pike River coalmine near Greymouth after a fourth explosion.

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Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall deviated from the script when he inflated hopes that the 29 victims of the mine explosion could be alive, a new book claims.

Behind-the-scenes tension between Whittall and former Tasman police district commander Superintendent Gary Knowles in the days after the 2010 disaster have been detailed in journalist Rebecca Macfie's Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died, which goes on sale today.

In it, Macfie says Whittall adopted a "tone of reassurance" in the days after the first blast, when Knowles felt by day three there was no hope of survival.

"Before each meeting with the families the two of them would agree on the content and tone of the briefing, but Knowles felt Whittall would then deviate from their agreement and inflate the families' hopes," Macfie wrote.

Knowles this week declined to comment on Macfie's account, in which she said Knowles increasingly became the target of venom from anguished family members while Whittall seemed to be trusted.

After the second explosion, it was clear there should be no false hopes raised, Macfie wrote.

At the family meeting that day - which went "terribly wrong" after Whittall explained first that Mines Rescue men had been preparing to go into the mine, resulting in claps and cheers - Knowles stepped forward and broke the news that no-one could have survived.

"For five days, a cast of many - Pike employees, police, firemen, Mines Rescue men, visiting experts - had been privy to information that disclosed the likely death of the men, but the families of the 29 had not been told," Macfie wrote. "Now in one terrible clumsy moment, all hope was extinguished."

The book was launched amidst anger by victims' families over the Government's rejection to pay reparation.

About 80 people, including many families of the 29 men killed, gathered at the Pike Memorial Garden in Atarau yesterday for a dedication of the book prior to its official launch in Greymouth.

Macfie said people who went to work every day around the country were entitled to come home.

"My hope is this book will help to uncover why this didn't happen this time."

Carol Rose, mother of victim Stuart Mudge, said it was very disappointing no-one had taken responsibility for the deaths.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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