White Island: New Zealand volcano tragedy trial begins

White Island

White Island

Tour operators accused of safety failures in the lead up to the deadly White Island volcano disaster are facing a landmark trial in New Zealand.

Twenty-two people died when the country’s most active volcano suddenly erupted on 9 December 2019.

It had been showing signs of unrest for weeks, with workplace regulators saying the eruption was not unforeseeable but tour operators were unprepared.

Six parties face fines of up to NZ$1.5m ($928,000; £724,000) if found guilty.

At the time of the eruption, 47 people were on White Island – also known by its Maori name of Whakaari. Almost half of those present were killed, including 17 people from Australia, three from the US, and two from New Zealand. Another 25 people were injured, many suffering horrific burns.

The disaster prompted the most extensive and complex investigation ever undertaken by WorkSafe NZ, the nation’s main health and safety regulator, which itself has been criticised for failing to monitor activities on the island between 2014 and 2019.

Thirteen parties were initially charged in December 2020 with exposing people to risk of harm under the health and safety act. They were accused of failing to assess and mitigate risks, to adequately inform tourists of the dangers, and to provide protective equipment.

“This was an unexpected event, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable and there is a duty on operators to protect those in their care,” WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said at the time.

None of the charges relate to events during or after the eruption, and the defendants include companies which did not have tourists at the volcano at the time.

The case against one tour operator has since been dropped, and another six pleaded guilty before trial – some just days ago. Most are yet to be sentenced.

White Island Tours, which was responsible for the safety of all except one of those killed, is among the companies which have admitted the charges.

Six defendants remain, including members of the Buttle family, who have owned White Island since 1936.

Peter, James and Andrew Buttle, the three brothers who inherited the island, have been charged in their roles as directors of Whakaari Management – which granted licences to tour operators and also faces charges at a company level.

ID Tours New Zealand Limited and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited are also contesting their charges in court.

The judge alone trial, which begins hearing evidence on Tuesday, is expected to last four months.

Once a popular sightseeing destination visited by thousands every year, tourists have not been back to White Island since the tragedy.

The volcano had been erupting in some form since 2011, and was rated at Volcanic Alert Level 2 at the time of the disaster, indicating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.

source: yahoo.com