New Zealand charges 13 parties over White Island deaths, injuries

Watchdog files charges over volcanic eruption that left 22 tourists and guides dead and dozens more injured.

An aerial view of the Whakaari volcano, also known as White Island, in New Zealand, December 12, 2019 [File: Jorge Silva/Reuters]

A New Zealand watchdog has filed charges against 13 parties over the death of 22 people during a volcanic eruption on White Island last year.

In a statement on Monday, WorkSafe said its year-long inquiry found that 10 organisations and three individuals had failed to meet their health and safety obligations by taking tourists to the active volcano, also known as Whakaari in Maori.

The watchdog, which regulates workplace related incidents in New Zealand, had been investigating why tour operators took people onto White Island, marketed as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”, three weeks after volcanologists raised its eruption alert level.

There were 47 people on the island when the volcano erupted in December 2019, spewing ash and steam over the island. Most of them were Australian tourists.

The dead included both tourists and tour guides, while WorkSafe said all survivors suffered “serious injuries and trauma”.

“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,” Phil Parkes, the chief executive of WorkSafe said in a statement.

“This tragedy has had a wide-ranging impact on victims, families, communities and iwi … Those who went to the island, did so with the reasonable expectation that there were appropriate systems in place to ensure they made it home healthy and safe.”

The regulator said all the names of the parties involved were being withheld but said the 10 organisations each faced fines of up to 1.5 million New Zealand dollars ($1.1m), with individuals facing maximum fines of $300,000 New Zealand dollars ($211,026).

Among them was a Rotorua-based helicopter company called Volcanic Air, according to the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

The coroner’s office is conducting a separate investigation that will examine whether criminal charges such as manslaughter should be laid.

Meredith Dallow, who lost her twin brother, Gavin, in the tragedy told the New Zealand Herald that she was “quite pleased” with the charges.

“It does give us some relief especially as we come close to the 12-month anniversary,” she was quoted as saying. However, she said there would be no closure until the court cases and the coroner’s inquest came to an end.

Broadcaster TVNZ reported that the court cases will begin in Auckland on December 15.

Source: Al Jazeera