The former CEO of the Pike River mine says he doesn’t feel guilty over the explosion that killed 29 of his workers. Hayden Donnell lists a few things that should twig his conscience.
Peter Whittall, who was boss of the Pike River mine when it blew up and killed 29 men, doesn’t feel guilty. The former Pike River Coal Ltd chief executive gave an interview to the Sunday Star-Times this weekend in which he talked about the “dark times” he’s been through since the 2010 disaster. Everyone connected to Pike River had suffered in some way, he told Jonathan Marshall.
He, for instance, was unemployed for three years after the mine he oversaw exploded, killing Pike River employees and trapping their remains underground. Even now he’s happily married and living on a $1.3 million lifestyle block south of Sydney, he is still haunted by the “tragedy”. But does he feel guilt? “No,” he said. “It is human nature to blame someone.”
Whittall believed he had “nothing to be ashamed of”, in the Sunday Star-Times‘ summary, and that he couldn’t feel guilty because no-one could tell him exactly what triggered the deadly blast inside his mine. “Do I actually know what happened? No, I don’t,” he said. “It was a terrible tragedy but I would defend my position because I feel I always put the interests of my staff and workforce before everything.”
He added: “Do I have an apology to make to the families? I think it’s a tragedy and I absolutely apologise that it ever happened to them.”
People are innocent until proven guilty, and charges against Whittall under the Health and Safety in Employment Act were dropped in 2013 – a decision later ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. But if Whittall really can’t find anything that pricks his conscience he might try expanding his mind past that fatal moment, and into the vast reservoir of reported negligence and incompetence that preceded it, much of which he directly oversaw.
He could look at the fact the mine he had a vital role in developing had essentially become a death trap. Many of the gas sensors inside Pike River hadn’t been functioning for weeks in the lead-up to the explosion on November 19, 2010. The ones that did work painted a terrifying picture. Hand-held sensors carried by employees routinely made catastrophic gas readings. Methane was recorded at explosive levels 21 times in the 48 days before the disaster. Any respectable mine would have been shut down while the gas spikes were investigated. Pike River kept running.
Whittall could consider feeling ashamed over his involvement in the establishment of a disastrous safety culture, or over the fact he approved a dangerous mine design. Pike River didn’t have a second exit, which was illegal, and would have made escape virtually impossible if the main mine drift was blocked. Its primary ventilation fan was underground instead of on the surface, which meant it was impossible to reach after a disaster. Whittall allowed both unsafe features to be built, and could feel a pang of conscience over the fact they may have been a factor in 29 deaths.
If Whittall still doesn’t feel guilty about those failings, he could at least regret the business culture that informed them. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River disaster said Whittall and the rest of the mine managers prioritised profits over worker safety. Due to a series of poor decisions, including Whittall opting to buy three malfunctioning machines, Pike River mine was in dire financial straits when it exploded. Despite that, Whittall persisted in promising impossible production volumes to shareholders. Workers were tasked with meeting these desperate and illusory targets at the expense of measures that should have kept them alive.
All this was Whittall’s responsibility. He was Pike River’s first employee. His first and most important job was creating a mine that wouldn’t explode. On that, he failed.
But if even that doesn’t make him feel anything like guilt, he should reflect on how the families of the 29 men who died inside Pike River have been treated. In 2013, Judge Jane Farish convicted Pike River Coal Ltd of nine breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act at the Greymouth District Court. She said a worse case of health and safety failures was “hard to imagine” and ordered the company to pay the families of the Pike River dead $3.41 million in damages. Despite that damning judgement, the families only received $5000 each because the company Whittall once headed was in receivership and claimed it was unable to pay. It had already spent its $2 million liability insurance payout on legal fees.
Whittall could reflect, too, on the way he treated the families in the aftermath of the disaster. Given the Pike River mine’s design, there was never any real hope anyone survived the first explosion. Nevertheless, Whittall persisted in telling the families their loved ones could be clinging to life, giving more optimistic briefings than he had agreed on with police superintendent Gary Knowles, according to Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River Mine.
When a second explosion on November 24, 2010, ended any chance of finding survivors inside the mine, Whittall was assigned the task of telling the families their loved ones were dead. His statement was meant to be brief and to-the-point. Instead he opened by talking about the context of the explosion – how earlier in the day gas levels had declined and Mines Rescue had prepared to launch a rescue. “People instantly began to cheer and clap,” Macfie wrote. “[Gary] Knowles, [Gerry] Brownlee and Whittall raised their arms for silence, knowing the message was going terribly wrong. Whittall tried to go on but was unable to.”
On that day, Whittall couldn’t face the consequences of his mistakes. He couldn’t own up to the ugly reality staring him in the face. And that seems to persist even now.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.