On a pristine day two years ago, a group of mostly international day-trippers boarded boats and chugged over to Whakaari/White Island, a small active volcano and popular tourist destination 48km off New Zealand’s east coast. The guests roamed the moon-like landscape, observing the strangeness of a bubbling, living rock. But below the surface, pressure was building.
At 2.11pm, while 47 people were on the island, the volcano erupted, spewing a mushroom cloud of steam, gases, rock and ash into the air. The eruption killed 22 people, seriously injured 25 and changed the lives of many families forever. It became the country’s deadliest volcanic disaster since the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera.
“People saw things on that day that no person should ever see and they carry those memories and that trauma with them,” says the East Coast MP and now emergency management minister, Kiri Allan.
Allan had just flown into Wellington when she heard the news, and turned straight back. She remained on the ground in the Bay of Plenty for the next two weeks.
There are two memories that have stayed with her. The Mataatua Marae (meeting place) in Whakatane opened its doors, and one person who had lost a loved one told her they had no idea what was being said in the house but they felt safe as they mourned. The second was meeting the brother of a young man who had died, and becoming close to that family.
“Everyone has those memories from the Eastern Bay,” Allan says. “Everyone has a clear memory of where they were, and what happened over the course of the next week.”
Two years on, Allan says Covid-19 travel restrictions and disruptions have meant the community is yet to properly grieve. “Things aren’t concluded for that period of time for us, and there are a range of other processes that are in play at the moment.”
There has not yet been an opportunity to properly embrace the families of the overseas guests who were affected by the tragedy, other than in its immediate aftermath. “I know that time will come and as a community we’ll be ready.”
The second anniversary is passing more quietly than the last, with no official ceremony, as the country grapples with a Covid outbreak and a court case that will look at the lead-up to the eruption looms.
The local iwi (tribe) Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa and White Island Tours staff will privately come together to remember the victims, and at 2.11pm will observe a minute of silence.
“We will always remember the people that lost their lives that day and we continue to pray for those that lost loved ones,” says Ngāti Awa’s chair, Joe Harawira.
“Our thoughts are also with the survivors, here in Aotearoa and abroad and we hope they are healing physically and spiritually. We join with them in their grief.”
Among those who lost their lives were White Island Tours guides Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi. Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank were also guiding visitors to the island that day. They survived the eruption and guided many people to safety despite their own serious injuries.
Whakaari is regularly visited by the public on guided tours. Most casualties were passengers on the visiting cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, and included tourists from Australia, Germany, China, Malaysia, the US and the UK.
In November last year WorkSafe announced it was laying charges against 13 organisations and individuals over alleged workplace health and safety breachesrelated to tourism operations on the island. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty. It is an unusual case for New Zealand, marking the first time a scientific agency has been charged under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 2015, which is usually applied to workplaces, such as factories. The trial is due to go ahead in 2023.
Those charged were: the island’s owner Whakaari Management Limited and its directors Andrew, James and Peter Buttle; GNS Science; the National Emergency Management Agency; White Island Tours Limited; Volcanic Air Safaris Limited; Aerius Limited; Kahu NZ Limited; Inflite Charters Limited; ID Tours New Zealand Limited; and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited.
The charges do not relate to what happened on the day of the eruption, or the rescue efforts. But the pending court case has drawn ire from some in the community, who last year petitioned the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to intervene in the charges against Mark Law of Kahu NZ Limited, a pilot who risked his life to rescue 12 tourists.
An independent report into WorkSafe released by the government last October found WorkSafe also “fell short of good practice” in its regulation of activities on Whakaari over the 2014-19 period, including not adequately auditing adventure activity operators.
Dr Simon Connell, who researches accidents and the law, told RNZ there is a potential conflict of interest for WorkSafe, being both the regulator and the prosecutor.
“In the sense there’s an incentive there for WorkSafe to point the finger elsewhere and to build a strong case that says the fault and responsibility lies elsewhere.”
He said it was clear that something had gone very wrong at WorkSafe if its audit of an adventure activity on an active volcano does not take into account the risks an active volcano itself presents. “That’s not a subtle, technical, legal nuance point. That is a serious, serious issue in terms of mindset.”