Ex-Pike River boss riles Coast families

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 08/05/2012

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Grieving West Coast families are angry about a "hollow" expression of sympathy by the man who headed the Pike River coalmine until six weeks before an explosion that killed 29 men.

They are also shocked he is promoting himself as a mining consultant on the internet.

Gordon Ward had publicly remained silent since the November 2010 blast at the underground mine, despite spending 12 years at its helm.

He refused to be a witness at the royal commission of inquiry into the tragedy or to give a written statement, and the commission was unable to force him because he lived overseas.

He broke his silence to TVNZ television programme Sunday. "Words can't express the deepest sympathies I have for the families," he said.

He refused to say why he failed to help the inquiry.

Sunday revealed he had recently bought a $2 million IGA supermarket, near his newly rented $1.2m home in Reedy Creek on Australia's Gold Coast.

Efforts by The Press to contact him at the supermarket were unsuccessful yesterday.

Paroa nurse Kath Monk, whose son Michael, 23, was killed in the mine, said her first thought was to picket outside Ward's store.

"If we went with placards against him and stood outside his supermarket, at least we would feel we had done something and he hadn't got away scot-free," she said.

"He's over there living his life. It appears carefree, and he hasn't had to suffer one bit over the last 18 months. We've been to hell and back.

"To me, [his words of sympathy] were hollow. It's just another kick in the guts really."

Her husband and spokesman for most of the victims' families, Bernie Monk, said he was angry about Ward's words.

He had previously asked police to contact Ward on behalf of the families to plead for his return to the inquiry.

Former Grey District councillor Milton Osborne's widow, Anna Osborne, believed Ward knew the mine had major problems before he left.

"He's got blood of 29 men on his hands. He knew things weren't right and he chose to bail before the s... hit the fan. He ran before it blew up," she said.

"He can shove his [condolences] where the sun doesn't shine MY man is still down there.

"If he'd stayed at Pike, maybe he could have prevented it. He contributed to his death."

She was disgusted Ward was advertising himself as a mining consultant on the internet, "gloating about his successes" despite Pike River blowing up and his refusal to front to the royal commission.

The Monks believed he should not work in mining after the Pike River disaster.

"If he was so willing to make those comments, why didn't he come back to the commission and with his vast experience to say where things went wrong at Pike," Bernie Monk said.

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Ward's LinkedIn internet profile says he

had "a sound financial, legal and regulatory understanding coupled with very strong budgeting, financial modelling, negotiation and contracting skills".

Serious financial, production and safety problems were highlighted in the 10 weeks of royal commission hearings into the Pike River tragedy.

WARD SEEN AS MINE PROJECT'S 'MAIN MAN'

Gordon Ward became responsible for the Pike River project in 1998 as general manager of its main shareholder, New Zealand Oil and Gas.

He joined Pike River Coal's board in 2006 and became chief executive in 2007 until six weeks before it exploded.

The mine's then general manager, Peter Whittall, replaced him as chief executive.

Ward left Pike River amid concerns over his "over-optimistic" forecasting of its performance and after an unfavourable review of his leadership, former Pike River chairman John Dow told the royal commission of inquiry last December.

He called Ward the project's "architect" and Pike River's "main man".

"It was made very clear this was very much Gordon's baby," he said.

Ward later worked as the Queensland Coal Corporation's chief operating officer for 13 months, but his employment "ceased" on the first anniversary of the tragedy last November 19, according to the company.

It declined to comment on whether he resigned or was sacked.

Next month, Whittall, Pike River and VLI Drilling, a subsidiary of Valley Longwall International, will appear in court to face Labour Department charges of alleged health and safety failures.

- The Press

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