‘It really, really hurt’: Four years after White Island volcano disaster court finds tour company guilty

New Zealand judge pulls up tour operator for ‘astonishing failures’ related to safety audits

Shweta Sharma
Tuesday 31 October 2023 12:22 GMT
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Volcano erupts on New Zealand’s White Island

In 2019, a group of people, including honeymooners, took a tour of the active Whakaari White Island volcano in New Zealand, excited about the adventure they were about to embark on.

However, their thrill soon turned into horror and a life of searing pain, suffering and loss as the volcano erupted, killing 22 people and severely injuring dozens of others.

A New Zealand court on Tuesday found a tour company guilty of violating workplace safety laws during the 2019 Whakaari White Island volcano disaster.

Whakaari Management Limited (WML), a holding company owned by the landowners of White Island, was denounced by judge Evangelos Thomas on Tuesday for conducting a tour of the volcano as it erupted.

The judge pulled up the company for “astonishing failures” related to safety audits, given the “obvious risks”.

“Screams for help and screams in agony,” American tourist Lauren Urey said in her testimony.

WML was convicted for the violation of workplace safety laws, but a second charge was dismissed. The conviction ended what was the largest action against a company introduced by Worksafe NZ, the country’s workplace safety regulator.

The families that included 17 Australians, three Americans, and two New Zealanders were visiting the island, also known by its traditional Māori name Whakaari.

Tragedy soon struck after the volcano erupted and led to 22 people being killed and 25 others left with severe burns in one of New Zealand’s worst natural disasters.

The people were present on the east coast island where a tour organised by the company included ferrying them near the country’s most active volcano for a closeup look.

“The expert evidence... was also common sense,” judge Thomas observed in the latest ruling.

File In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defence Force emergency workers recover bodies from White Island in 2019, after a volcanic eruption in Whakatane

“In WML’s case, it should have appreciated that it could [not] rely on risk assessment work being done by others to relieve it of its own obligation in relation to risk... it needed to stop and re-evaluate,” he said.

Legal representatives for WML argued that the company was a landowner and did not have direct oversight of island tours and their operations.

But judge Thomas said the company managed and controlled the volcano and did not fulfil its duty to minimise risks for tourists.

“It should have been no surprise that Whakaari could erupt at any time, and without warning, at the risk of death and serious injury,” he said.

A second charge related to the safety of WML’s own workers was dismissed.

The company now faces a maximum fine of NZ$1.5m (£724,000), with a sentence against guilty defendants to be announced next year.

Six other defendants pleaded guilty to health and safety failings. Their sentencing is due in February 2024. Six others had their charges dismissed.

In the aftermath of the eruption, 13 parties had been implicated.

White Island is pictured on 8 December 2020 off the coast of Whakatane

They included the owners of WML – James, Andrew and Peter Buttle – the three brothers who inherited ownership of the volcano and other businesses. The Buttle brothers were on trial over charges related to breaching the country’s safety regulations, but they were dismissed last month.

WML, tour operator White Island Tours, various other tourism firms and New Zealand’s volcano monitoring agency, the GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency, were also charged.

The eruption triggered a debate over safety regulations in New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry.

The trial that opened in July this year featured vivid, emotional testimonies from numerous survivors who said they were inadequately informed about the risks associated with the Whakaari volcano.

The survivors described being dumbfounded by the eruption. They first saw a silently billowing black cloud and were soon lashed by molten sand, ash and burning rocks hurtling towards them.

Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann recorded the horrific moments of the eruption on Whakaari that later went viral.

A small memorial is pictured for the 22 people who died on White Island on 9 December 2020 in Whakatane, New Zealand

They showed a huge mushroom cloud unfurling on the horizon that swiftly engulfed the island, followed by a dark, fast-moving avalanche of rock, ash and acidic gas.

The sheer force of the event was staggering, as described by Mr Kauffmann’s wife Aline, who referred to the smoke as “massive” and approaching rapidly, according to Outside Magazine.

Paul Kingi, crewing on the ship Phoenix, witnessed the eruption debris dropping down into the sea and hurtling toward his ship. He shouted at everyone to get inside. Chaos ensued as the ship’s captain swiftly steered southward and executed a sweeping manoeuvre to escape the eruption.

People aboard another ship in Crater Bay, the Te Puia Whakaari, were not so lucky. Its captain David Plews was anchored directly in the path of the high-speed, 60-mile-per-hour gas and rock tsunami.

The 42 passengers in his ship were either already engulfed by the chaos or were on the verge of being so.

Some of the people jumped into the water while others were not able to make it in time. American tourists Matthew and Lauren Urey, who were there for their honeymoon, said the sea was choppy that day and passengers were not informed of any dangers.

Friends and family of victims of the White Island eruption following a memorial service on 9 December 2020

“I remember somebody yelling, ‘look’ and I looked over and I saw a very large black cloud coming out of the volcano. And that’s when we were told to run,” Ms Urey, who had reached the edge of crater with their group and were returning back to boat, told CNN.

She described the billowing black cloud as eerily quiet, but as she and her husband took cover behind a rock, they suddenly heard a resounding explosion as the volcano erupted, followed by harrowing cries.

“Screams for help and screams in agony,” she said in her testimony.

Her husband said he struggled to breathe as they were surrounded by waves of heat that experts estimated reached 100C or more.

The couple has since then undergone multiple surgeries and skin grafts. They have also put plans to have babies on hold as Ms Urey is considered high risk.

Jesse Langford, a 19-year-old from Sydney, had gone to the family trip with his mother, father and sister, but returned alone with severe burns. He said he was admitted to the hospital and was in a coma for eight days.

“I was being hammered by this sandstorm like in the movies where you can’t see two metres in front of you. I was in so much pain,” he said.

When the skies cleared, he said everything was covered in grey ash. He saw his father sitting up and struggling to breathe and his mother was not moving at all. His teenage sister’s body was never found.

Australian tourist Anne Lou was left with 38 per cent of body covered in burns. “There were no clear instructions or plan, everybody just purely went on fight-or-flight instinct and ran directly for the jetty,” she said.

She said she felt the moment was “like sand and rocks everywhere” that were hurtling towards them.

“It really, really hurt,” she said.

“It was just burning. I’ve never felt anything like that before. It was just like someone heated up some needles until it was iron hot and then shoving it all onto you.”

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