Pike River rescue operation a 'wrong call'

 "First Pike River explosion killed miners says coroner". The headline in the DomPost summed it up last Friday.

And on Saturday the headline also laid to rest the other underling issue about the mine disaster. "Police 'wrong call' blamed for raising coal mine rescue hopes," this time quoting Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn.

Last year I wrote in this column that the police handling of the disaster, had raised false hopes and I criticised the decision by the police commander Superintendent Gary Knowles to label it a rescue operation rather than a recovery operation.

'Rescue' meant that there was still some possibility that people were still alive. 'Recovery' meant that it was about getting the bodies out.

I also criticised the reporters at the scene for not questioning Superintendent Knowles as to his reasons for calling it a rescue operation.  He did that on the Friday, the day of the explosion, and maintained that line over the weekend and well into the following week.

That in turn generated demands from relatives that some people, police, willing volunteers, the relatives themselves, anyone willing to give it a go, should be allowed to go into the mine and search for survivors. Conditions were such that this was never possible, but the expectation generated by Mr Knowles' decision led to immense frustration.

The questions remain: on the basis of what evidence, and/or on whose advice, did Superintendent Knowles make the judgement that it was a rescue operation, and why did the reporters never question him about this. On Sunday, two days after the explosion on the Friday, one reporter tried and was told that it was distasteful line of questioning.

Medical evidence presented by the police to the coroner's inquest last week "indicated the men would have been unconscious after the initial explosion...and probably would have died within three to five minutes."

So if this is the case, and the coroner has accepted that it is, why was Mr Knowles maintaining the  'they may still be alive' approach for several days after the initial explosion. He changed his tune after the second explosion removed any possibility anyone was still alive, and after footage of the first explosion taken at the top of the mine shaft was released.

Once the footage of the first explosion was made public, the miners' families and others in the industry knew immediately that the 29 were all dead. No one could have survived a blast of that magnitude.  That footage was from the mine company's CCTV system and would have been available to the police on Friday at over the weekend at the latest.  The police had to be persuaded to let it be made public.

The question of the police's judgement, and the false expectations that it created, hasn't been examined by the Coroner but it may come up at later hearings or be raised at the Royal Commission itself.