Jacinda Ardern has said the overseas visitors among 22 people killed in the White Island/Whakaari volcano eruption will be forever in the hearts of New Zealanders as the nation marked a year since the disaster.
Victims’ families, survivors and rescue workers gathered for a minute’s silence on Wednesday at 2.11pm – the time the volcano erupted – in Whakatāne not far from White Island, which lies just offshore.
Afterwards the prime minister said: “I say to those who have lost and grieve, you are forever linked to this place and our nation and we will continue to hold you close. Haere haere atu ra [rest in peace].”
The governor general, Dame Patsy Reddy, said: “The ninth of December is a dark day in our nation’s history.”
The anniversary comes amid legal battles over responsibility for the disaster. The workplace safety watchdog has laid charges against 13 parties including the island’s owners, the government agency that monitors geological hazards, the National Emergency Management Agency and tour operators.
The volcano erupted in December 2019 while 47 people were on the island: the 22 victims – comprising 20 foreign tourists and two local tour guides – were from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, China, Britain and Malaysia. Several survivors are still undergoing treatment for their injuries.
Meredith Dallow, the twin sister of Australian victim Gavin Dallow, said: “I’ll be glad when today will be over. It will be the last of the firsts, you know. The first year there was the first birthday, the first mother’s day, the first father’s day.
“You think about the things that Gavin will miss out on in the future and what we aren’t going to have him a part of … it’s been hard,” said Meredith Dallow, who watched the ceremony from her home in Adelaide, surrounded by relatives. Gavin’s 15-year-old stepdaughter, Zoe Hosking, also died in the disaster. His wife, Lisa Dallow, survived but suffered serious injuries and has spent months recovering.
In a message read out at Whakatāne, Lisa Dallow said Gavin was “much loved and sorely missed”. She said of Zoe: “Beautiful daughter, it is beyond my capacity to believe that you have gone. I feel like you are at a camp or a friend’s house, and I’m waiting for you to come home.”
The bodies of two of the dead have not been recovered: Australian teenager Winona Langford and New Zealand tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman. Marshall-Inman’s brother, Mark, told Stuff: “One year’s a tough one because one year on we still don’t have Hayden back When you look back you still think that he’s going to give you a call.”
Hosted by Ngāti Awa, the local Māori tribe, Wednesday’s commemorations followed a dawn service at Whakatāne Heads. A popular spot where the Whakatāne river meets the sea, it offers a clear view of the volcano 52km (32 miles) offshore which most days trails a wispy plume of steam.
Among the 100 people who gathered for the dawn karakia (prayers) and emotional waiata (song) were Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank, tour guides who were the only New Zealanders to survive the eruption.
The anniversary coincided with Millbank’s 20th birthday and he said he planned to go fishing, something he was supposed to do one year ago before being called into work because his employer was short of crew.
Millbank suffered burns to 80% of his body, was in a coma for two weeks and in intensive care for many weeks more. Doctors prepared the family for the likelihood he would die, his father, Steve Millbank, said.
“Big and gnarly scars” and clawed hands that cannot grip are constant reminders but today was a cause for celebration as well as remembrance, Steve Millbank told the New Zealand Herald. “It was pretty bloody amazing at the end of the day [that he survived].”
There have been mixed reactions to the charges laid by the country’s workplace safety watchdog. Individuals charged include pilots who showed extreme bravery during rescue efforts.
While some – including victims taking part in a class action being compiled by lawyers in Australia – are seeking accountability, others see it as “an act of God” and part and parcel of the risks involved in the adventure tourism New Zealand is renowned for, including bungee jumping, jet boating and river rafting.
More than 111,000 people have signed a petition calling for a halt to the prosecution of helicopter pilots who rescued survivors. They face charges related to company tours of the island and not the rescue missions they made at a time when government rescue crews were ordered not to approach the island due to the high ongoing risk.
Veteran commercial pilot John Funnell, who circled the island to provide communications for private helicopters mounting a rescue, said the charges would not bring anyone back. “Is it going to give anyone any satisfaction by bringing charges and them having to defend it? I think it just adds to the anguish,” said Funnell, who is fundraising for the pilots’ defence costs.
Australian volcanologist Ray Cas, who has twice visited the crater, believes it should never have been a tourist destination because of its volatility and its structure. On disembarking, visitors immediately step into the crater and proceed into an “amphitheatre-like cauldron” at the back of the crater.
In the event of an eruption, people were trapped without emergency or first aid services on the island, Cas, an emeritus professor at the school of geosciences at Monash University, told the New Zealand Herald. Tours to the island have been banned since the disaster. Cas is among those who hope tourists will never go again.
At the time of the eruption, GNS Science, the organisation responsible for monitoring volcanic activity on the island, assessed it at alert level 2 on a scale that ranges from zero (no volcanic unrest) to five (volcanic eruption). On Wednesday it was at one.