New Zealand starts trial into 2019 White Island volcano disaster

The owners of the island, also known as Whakaari, face charges over disaster that killed 22 people and seriously hurt dozens.

Three bosses of the company managing the White Island volcano have gone on trial in New Zealand over a 2019 eruption that killed 22 tourists and left dozens with horrific injuries, with prosecutors arguing they failed to properly prepare and warn visitors of the dangers of visiting the site.

White Island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, is about 50km (30 miles) from the east coast of North Island.

Some 47 people, mostly tourists from countries including Australia, Malaysia and the United States, were on the island when it erupted.

“This volcano eruption involved a massive explosion,” prosecution lawyer Kristy McDonald told Auckland District Court on Tuesday.

It resulted in a flow of “burning hot ash, scalding hot sea, poisonous volcanic ashes and rocks projected across the crater floor”, she added.

Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, the three brothers who own and manage White Island through their company Whakaari Management Limited (WML), are accused of breaching health and safety regulations in the run-up to the disaster.  WML and two other tour-related companies are also on trial. All have denied wrongdoing.

McDonald said the brothers knew the volcano could erupt without warning.

“It was their company,” McDonald said, according to New Zealand news outlet, Stuff.

“WML was obliged to know the risks, but it never bothered. Nor did it adequately consult with those who did know the risk.”

McDonald said the Buttles had been making about 1 million New Zealand dollars ($620,000) a year from visitors before disaster struck.

“They profited from every single tourist taken to Whakaari,” she told the court.

‘Active volcano’

McDonald said that the lack of action meant the tourists, as well as their guides, went to the crater of an active volcano.

The charges do not carry the threat of jail time, but those found guilty could face fines of as much as 1.5 million New Zealand dollars ($930,000).

The criminal trial is expected to last several weeks.

Defence lawyers have argued their clients were not responsible for the health and safety of those on the island as that was the responsibility of others.

The judge-only trial is scheduled to take 16 weeks with a number of victims from the eruption due to provide evidence.

Six other companies – including the boat operator that carried 21 of those who died to the island and helicopter tour organisers – have already pleaded guilty to health and safety charges.

In May last year, a judge cleared New Zealand’s emergency management agency of health and safety breaches.

Government body WorkSafe, which is leading the prosecution, had accused the agency of failing to properly communicate the risks of an eruption to landowners and the public.

But the agency’s lawyers successfully argued the charge was “wholly misconceived”.

No boat or aircraft tours have been allowed to land on the island since the 2019 eruption.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies