“This deeply tragic event was unexpected, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable.” –WorkSafe CEO Phil Parkes

Time for some independent action

By Roger Childs

It’s now a year on from the disaster which killed 22 people, mainly Australians. This was an accident waiting to happen and it appears that because of the greed and incompetence of White Island Tours lives were lost. Most people expected a Royal Commission to investigate the tragedy as happened with the Pike River disaster and the shootings at the Christchurch mosques. Instead the government workplace regulator WorkSafe carried out an inquiry and last week decided to prosecute – 10 organisations and 5 individuals — anyone who had anything to do with the tragic events in the Bay of Plenty in December 2019. However, Work Safe didn’t include themselves!

This scattergun approach to assigning culpability may be have been intended to soften the blow for the chief culprits: the Ngati Awa tour operators. 

An avoidable tragedy 

A week before the catastrophe a GeoNet scientist had cautioned that White Island was entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal. On a scale of five the danger level went up from 1 to 2, however the operators said that was still inside their safety guidelines. Nevertheless, that increase put the danger up from 20% to 40% — surely too high to risk lives in a potentially explosive and lethal environment.

There are many questions to be answered and a key one is – were the operators – Ngati Awa Group Holdings – just too hungry for the big bucks the tourists were prepared to part with for the experience of getting close to an active volcano? The luxury liner, Ovation of the Seas, was only in port for the day, so the opportunity for company to take visitors out to White Island was seemingly too good to miss.

An independent assessment to assign blame 

A Royal Commission is needed to investigate the tragedy as Work Safe is compromised by its function as the government body entrusted to regulate workplace safety. Karl du Fresne puts a strong case for the organisation to be on the prosecution list — see here

It is difficult to understand why GeoNet is on the list as they gave the tour operators the  crucial information that the risk of taking tourists out to the island was too great. Also how could helicopter operators who helped with recovering bodies possibly be culpable?

In hindsight it was a disastrous choice and one wonders if the boat operators on approaching the volcano noticed any tell-tale signs of impending danger in the colour of the water, volcanic noise and the level of steam activity on the island. 

The public both here and in Australia need answers as to why 22 people died as a consequence of risks not being heeded and poor decision making. An independent investigation carried out by a Royal Commission is the best was to get to the truth and it is surprising that it was not set up earlier.

A tribute created by GNS Science for the first anniversary.