14 Feb 2012

Pike River manager smelt fumes but returned to emails

7:01 pm on 14 February 2012

A Pike River manager has revealed he smelt fumes in the air on the day the West Coast mine first exploded, shortly before returning to his office and sending emails about a job elsewhere.

The Royal Commission into the disaster that killed 29 men in November 2010 heard on Tuesday that Doug White sent the emails about 15 minutes after the first explosion in the mine.

Mr White retook the stand on Tuesday to answer critical evidence presented to the commission since he last appeared in a previous phase of hearings. The commission is nearing the end of its third phase in Greymouth.

Some of the families of the 29 men killed described Mr White's actions as unforgivable and one mother in the courtroom yelled out in anguish, saying he was emailing while her son was dying.

White already job hunting

Mr White told the inquiry he had begun the process of finding a new job five days before the first explosion at the West Coast mine.

He confirmed that he was sending emails about a job prospect just after 4pm on 19 November, about 15 minutes after the first explosion.

In questioning, Mr White accepted he had been told earlier, at 3.50pm, the mine's power had gone out.

Mr White says he went outside and noticed a smell like gunpowder or diesel fumes.

"I've smelt diesel engines underground that come back with a gunpoweder/cordite type smell which is why, when we stood outside and smelt the unusual smell, we were searching for reasons. At that time, not knowing there had been an incident, we were trying to find out what the actual smell was, or what the smell might be."

Mr White says he sent the emails before he knew the incident was serious.

Unforgivable, say families

The revelations brought a sharp response from families of the men killed.

A spokesperson for some of the families say it is unforgivable a mine manager was sending personal emails shortly after the first explosion in the mine.

Bernie Monk says Mr White's revelation is a dreadful shock and he will have to live with the fact he knew something was wrong but went on sending personal emails.

Mr White told the inquiry he was trying to leave the coal company after being accused of making indiscreet comments which caused its share price to fall by seven cents.

During a visit by sharebrokers to the mine, Mr White told them there were no easy solutions to its technical problems.

He said he had seen the true colours of senior management and didn't like what he saw.

Mr White also rejected evidence given by experts at the inquiry over the past few months that the mine's ventilation was inadequate.

He said air monitoring deep inside the mine on the day before the disaster showed there was enough air movement to keep it safe.