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Brothers put profits ahead of assessing safety risk for Whakaari visitors - prosecutor

Whakaari White Island eruption as seen from tourist boat
The Whakaari eruption as seen from a tourist boat on 9 December 2019. Photo: Supplied / Lillani Hopkins

The company managing a small volcanic island was profiting in the millions before an eruption killed 22 people in 2019, WorkSafe says.

"Profit should never come before safety," prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC said, while summarising the agency's case against the owners of volcanic island Whakaari / White Island.

Three individuals, their company, and two other tourism companies are defendants facing charges from WorkSafe over health and safety failings in the leadup to a 2019 eruption that killed 22 people and injured 25 others.

WorkSafe began delivering its day-long opening statement this morning at the judge-only trial.

WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald QC.
Kristy McDonald KC Photo: Pool

McDonald said Andrew, James, and Peter Buttle, as directors of Whakaari Management Limited, had not done enough to inform visitors of the risks.

"Tourists were going into the crater of an active volcano," McDonald said. "It could erupt at any time without warning."

But "tourists were not given any health and safety information," she said. "None."

She said a prior eruption in 2016, which occurred at night while tours were inactive, should have prompted the brothers to reconsider their approach to managing risk.

But in 2018 and 2019, McDonald said the Buttles were considering opening the crater to overnight camping trips.

Whakaari Management Limited charged tour operators an annual licensing fee, as well as a fee for each individual visiting the island. The brothers were earning about $1 million a year from those fees.

WML's overheads were minimal, McDonald said. The Buttles, as directors, were the only employees.

"WorkSafe says this failure was a result of a failure by the Buttles to exercise due diligence," she said.

"As officers, the thing they had to do first and foremost before conducting any business, was to understand the risks of that business. It's 101 for any director in New Zealand to understand the risks of their business."

McDonald said some of the profits should have been used to address health and safety concerns, such as by erecting a jetty that could have been used for evacuations.

She said WML was aware they could hire GNS Science to perform an assessment, but were unwilling to pay the fee.

Two other companies, ID Tours New Zealand and Tauranga Tourism Services, are also facing charges.

"ID Tours and Tauranga Tourism were part of the supply chain and failed to do their roles by providing adequate warning to their customers," she said.

McDonald said the consultation between WML and tourism companies had been insufficient.

"Sufficient information needed to be provided at the pre-booking stage, before money was exchanged, and it should have been provided again before the tour," she said.

McDonald said each of the companies involved had failed to protect customers against a possible eruption.

"None of the tour operators had any requirements in respect to protective clothing required to be worn during a tour," she said.

Proper protective gear would have included overalls that covered skin, and boots made of sturdy heat-resistant material.

Hard hats and gas masks were offered, but only the hard hats were required. The gas masks were completely optional and often unfit for purpose, she said.

McDonald said many visitors were dressed in T-shirts and shorts.

She said Whakaari was a particularly dangerous destination for tourists. "The only part of Whakaari above water is the crater," she said.

"Visiting Whakaari is not like walking on the side of a volcano or skiing on Ruapehu, it is like crawling inside a crater."

Forty-two tourists and five tour guides were on the island when it erupted in 2019.

"The world saw those risks play out in the most traumatic way," McDonald said.

She said the victims faced a surge of "burning hot ash, scalding hot steam, [and] poisonous volcanic gases", with injuries suggesting the current "reached 100 degrees Celsius, maybe more."

She said the incident weighed heavily on the minds of the victims, their families, and the local community.

"For most, the mental and physical recovery continues three and a half years later," she said.

McDonald said many victims did not understand the risks they were exposing themselves to by setting foot on Whakaari.

"Customers had been deprived of the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to expose themselves to the risk of an active volcano," she said.

She presented pictures and videos taken on the day of the event, which showed smoke flowing from the crater shortly before the eruption.

One photo showed tourists posing for photos with the smoke cloud.

A time-lapse of the eruption showed the surge travelling at 60 kilometres per hour towards the group of tourists.

Other videos showed tour guides urging their groups to run before they were consumed by the ash.

Those that made it to the evacuation boats struggled to get on board, McDonald said.

"The wharf was approximately 90 years old, and too small for all of the boats to dock, making a swift evacuation difficult," she said.

"Some were losing the skin on their hands as they were using the ladder."

During the hour-long trip back to shore, the victims' injuries worsened, McDonald said.

"Burnt skin swelled and blistered, the sun and wind caused additional pain," she said.

"The supplies were not sufficient to deliver first aid to the number of persons required to be evacuated."

She said the main cause of injuries was the high temperature of the surge, but "other injuries were caused by missiles [thrown by the eruption]".

Six of the 25 survivors will present evidence during the trial.

Victims and their families have been invited to view the trial, which is set to run for 16 weeks, online.