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Safeguard Magazine

Raking over the coals

ANGELA GREGORY had the opportunity to escape the editor’s desk and attend two days of the Pike river hearings earlier this year. Here are her impressions.

Out on the streets of Greymouth, back in February, the sun was m shining and seemingly contented locals meandered around the town centre. Maybe it had something to do with it being Valentine’s Day, but the mood felt warm and positive. You also get the sense the laid back attitude is pretty much the norm here.

An elderly man who doesn’t know me calls out a cheerful “Good Morning!” and, later, a couple of women laugh and make small talk with me over their scones at a popular coffee shop on the main street.

For a town that’s been in the media spotlight for the well over a year the citizens of Greymouth seem almost surprisingly friendly and helpful to yet another visiting journalist.

A couple of blocks away behind the modern and bland exterior of the Greymouth District Court, the mood is not so bright. Here inside the spacious main courtroom a painstakingly thorough, and at times emotionally fraught, inquiry is continuing into the Pike River disaster. The Royal Commission is this week embroiled into its third phase of the inquiry: “What happened at Pike River?”

In probing such a question you might expect the courtroom to be packed with interested onlookers. No doubt in earlier stages of the inquiry it has been. But as the inquiry drags on, albeit in punctuated sittings, not all can afford the time to sit through days of detailed and at times upsetting evidence.

The number of lawyers outnumber the members of the public (who mostly appear to be closely related to the 29 men killed in the November 19 2010 explosion). In rows three deep, and also occupying the seats where a jury would normally sit, the legal suits include some of the who’s who of their profession – a number are QCs or prominent lawyers, including employment law specialists.

The three commissioners sharing the bench, Hon Justices Graham Pankhurst, Stewart Bell and David Henry, sit in front of maroon walls, with a silver coat of arms mounted on a simple pine panel behind them.

The media including newspaper, radio and television reporters are mostly camped in a room adjacent to the main courtroom where the testimony is fed through to them on a television screen.

Inside the court, the mood oscillates from at times a chummy collegiality to emotionally charged intensity. In just the two random days I attend the hearing, themes seem to emerge of things “about to be improved” at a somewhat rushed, maybe even makeshift mine, operating under production pressure amid personality clashes, and a high management turnover.

The hearing at times also seems an exercise in frustration. As the questions get to the nub of the matter, the lawyer (John Haigh QC) for the witness (Doug White, the mine’s general manager at the time of the explosion) repeatedly leaps up to strongly advise his client to exercise his right of non self-incrimination. That won’t however stop the commission from drawing its own inferences, another lawyer later tells me.

The words “in hindsight” sprinkle the testimony along with “I can’t remember”. Much of the evidence is highly technical, with detailed examination of the mine’s electrical systems, gas sensors and monitoring procedures.

The lawyers drill away at the material, and at times the evidence is unexpectedly explosive. An example comes on Tuesday morning. White, dressed in a conservative blue striped shirt and red tie, has been steady and matter of fact as he gives his evidence in chief. But he gives a self-conscious smile and scratches his chin when referred by Haigh to a November 14 email.

It was an email White had written to a mining recruitment consultant, Gary McClure, with “I won’t be a scapegoat” in the subject line. Family members of Pike River’s deceased start pointing at the email which has been projected onto the wall behind him.

They look intently at White when he’s asked by Haigh to explain what the trigger was for him to decide to plan to leave his job at Pike River. White says it came about after he had taken a group of stockbrokers underground and had indicated to them that the mine could be performing better.

There were issues with the hardness of the coal that the mine was trying to deal with, and he couldn’t offer them an answer to the problems. Later Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall had blamed him for a fall in the stock prices, which White felt was grossly unfair and inaccurate.

White scoffs when it is put to him by Haigh that a Pike River director had agreed with Whittall’s comments – that it was White’s fault and that he was commercially naive. “I think as a person who’s managed a number of coal mines over the last 10 years and operated and managed my own business, I think those comments about commercially … .unsophisticated may well be a bit unfair,” White testifies.

The commission’s legal counsel, Simon Mount, then cross examines White. Mount refers to an email sent by White at 4.02pm on the day of the explosion which occurred at 3.45) to Robert McIlwraith (who works in mining recruitment) titled “Solid Energy”. Its contents read: “Robbie can you call me back now if possible?”

Family members shake their heads in disbelief. When asked what the email was about White replies: “Mr McIlwraith had actually contacted me earlier on in the day with information that suggested that Solid Energy were very keen to speak to me about a position within their company.”

A woman cries out from the back of the court: “This was while my boy was dying, Jesus Christ.” She fees the court, calling out “disgusting, disgusting” and other family members wipe away tears. White, a little pale, looks sideways.

At the morning break the families’ spokesman Bernie Monk’s dark eyes resemble lumps of cold coal as he states the obvious to a newspaper reporter. “The families are upset that you can do something like that while their boys are underground.”

The evidence has obviously created ructions. When court resumes Mount, “to make sure what is on the record is in full fairness”, asks White whether at the time he sent the emails he was concerned there had been a major incident at the mine.

“At the time I sent those emails I’d absolutely no idea at all there was a major incident at the mine.” White replies.

Haigh rises to his feet to address the commissioners and defend his client’s honour. “The reason that my learned friend has very properly put that last question was that I’m aware that since that issue came up before, the media are rushing around now overly excited about the suggestion he’s looking for a job whilst there’s a catastrophe going on which clearly was not the reality, and that’s why I have asked Mr Mount to clarify that issue and I think it should be done publically and I’d, and trying to emphasise that again that this is the man who has been primarily concerned about safety in the mine, to leave it on the basis that somehow or other he’s ignoring a potential catastrophe and making emails, firing off emails to get a job is not the reality.”

A family member calls out from the back of the court: “What is reality?” Oblivious to all this, for now, are the relatives who can’t take the time to sit through the inquiry. Many are at their day jobs, earning money to keep their families afloat or looking after children who have no father.

Among those this day is a young florist, a Pike River widow, busy arranging Valentine’s Day bouquets at her mother’s shop. It’s her second Valentine’s Day since her 33-year-old husband died underground.

Even now her eyes immediately redden as she reflects on her loss. She agrees to my request for an interview, but after more thought turns it down. The woman explains she is reluctant to trawl over the difficulties she now faces in having to take care of their 2-year-old son, while resuming paid work to deal with the mortgage. “Every time I talk about it, it just brings it all back again.”

Back in court, as the day grinds on, family members start stretching their stiff spines over the back of the courtroom seats. At times they huddle together to whisper something about the evidence, and some heads start to droop.

A writer for a national current affairs magazine keeps her head down and meticulously takes extensive notes. While the testimony is later made available in transcripts on the commission’s website, they are not always that clear, she explains.

The written words also seem just the bare bones of the evidence, not reflecting the vocal tones, facial reactions, and body language as the evidence is adduced. A hand over the mouth, a sideways glance, a stony countenance or a faltering voice are not picked up. Witnesses bracing themselves when questions take a certain direction or a sensitive subject is raised, the tears and the hesitations are all left out.

As the day progresses there are at times Catch-22 elements of absurdity when it is put, for instance, that the engineer responsible for communications and monitoring had no idea who was actually doing the monitoring.

At the lunch break Monk tells reporters the main points he’s taken from the evidence so far today – how drastic the ventilation problems were, the major problems with fans breaking down, the unreliable gas monitoring, and a bad management culture where managers constantly changed. When asked if it was fair to blame White for what had happened, Monk says he’s not blaming anyone – yet. He’ll leave that to the commission.

Monk tells me as we walk down the street that in his view the Pike River managers should not have been left in charge of the operation after the explosion. He is adamant the full truth will never be known until someone “drills down” to where the bodies are, and examines the scene.

When the commission finally winds up for the day it requests an early start the following morning, given there is still so much material and other witnesses to get through before the end of the week.

That will be the day when White’s composure fails him. He stumbles in his testimony while he quietly cries after talking about being a hands-on manager who went underground up to three times a week and extolled the virtues of safe work. Later White again has to wipe away his tears when he says he did not regret an earlier decision to stay on at the mine.

The following morning I pack up my bags and drive out of Greymouth at daybreak, along the strikingly beautiful coastal road to Westport where I’ll f y back to Wellington. As the sun finally starts to peep over the mountainous ranges to my right, it’s hard to reconcile the sheer beauty of the region with the ravages of mining and the horrible event that has brought me to this special part of New Zealand.

By the week’s end I read in the Dominion Post newspaper that Justice Pankhurst has said the commission’s focus will now change, with less emphasis on looking back in favour of a more forward-looking focus.

“Really … the most crucial aspect for the report will be recommendations for the future,” he says.

ANGELA GREGORY

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