‘No escape’: White Island tragedy a disaster waiting to happen

A leading volcanologist says it was only a matter of time before the White Island tragedy happened; adding tourists and tour guides would have been stuck in “physical amphitheatre-like trap” when the island erupted.

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the White Island tragedy where 20 tourists and two tour guides lost their lives when the disaster struck on the popular tourist destination off the Bay of Plenty coastline.

Last week WorkSafe New Zealand confirmed charges had been laid against 13 parties in relation to the eruption.

The work place safety watchdog did not reveal who had been charged, but White Island tours – who lost two of their guides and 19 tourists in the eruption – has confirmed it is facing charges.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also confirmed two government agencies, GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency were also facing charges.

Three individuals have also been charged. All parties charged are to appear in the Auckland District Court on December 15.

On the eve the anniversary, respected Australasian volcanologist Ray Cas – an Emeritus Professor in the School of Geosciences at Melbourne’s Monash University – spoke of how he never believed tourists should have been allowed on the island.

That was based on how volatile White Island was, and – aside from a shipping container about 800m from the crater – a lack of protection for those on the island.

“You land on the concrete landing and your first steps are into the crater. And then you walk right into that amphitheatre-like cauldron to the back of the crater where the active crater lake is located,” Cas told the New Zealand Herald.

“Basically, people are trapped in that space if something happens. It is a trap, it is a physical amphitheatre-like trap that there is no escape from when an eruption occurs.”

And as so tragically discovered on White Island – 52km off the Bay of Plenty coastline – on December 9, when disaster struck help was a long way away.

“It has no habitation, no emergency services and first aid facilities on the island,” Cas said.

“Clearly if and when a major eruption occurs and there are people on the island then there are going to be great difficulties in getting people off the island quickly, and to get medical care to them. And that is what we saw happen last year.”

Cas said White Island had been one of the “very few volcanoes” around the world where tourists were permitted to go its crater.

Cas has witnessed live volcanic activity on White Island twice.

The first time was a flyover of the island in 1986.

He later returned to the island on one of the guided tours – arriving by boat – and said as soon as stepping foot on it he “immediately became uncomfortable because of that physically confined space and the level of activity that was clearly visible”.

“And I just didn’t think that the average layperson should actually be allowed on the island,” Cas said.

“From that trip, and knowing a bit about the history of the volcano, I could see it why it was so dangerous. My feeling was that no, people shouldn’t be allowed onto the island.”

He hoped no future tours would be allowed, adding even being taken by boat to witness the thermal activity a few hundred metres offshore was dangerous.

“There is a risk there because that pyroclastic surge that happened last December actually flowed over the water and inundated the boat that was anchored out there. And if you had a stronger surge it could probably [do] some damage to boats like that.”

GeoNet had upgraded its volcanic alert level from one to two in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.

Level two states: “Volcanic unrest hazards, potential for eruption hazards”.

The last major eruption was in 2016, when the island’s risk level was placed at level zero.

“That should have rung major alert bells with the tour company, with the tourism organisations in New Zealand, that this volcano can erupt totally unexpectedly,” Cas said of the upgraded warning.

“[in 2016] nothing was expected at all and what was fortunate about that eruption was it occurred during the night. Had it happened in the day then what occurred last year would have happened in 2016.

“2016 was essentially, if you like, a dress rehearsal for what happened last year. It is a shame that not more notice was taken of all of that.”

Cas stressed he had the “highest respect” for GeoNet’s “professionalism and expertise”.

The Australian-based volcanologist provided an expert witness summary on White Island – including its geological make-up and risks associated with it – to the WorkSafe investigation into the tragedy.

He has also talked to Sydney-based lawyer Rita Yousef; one of several lawyers working on civil cases related to the disaster.

Yousef – who specialises in travel law and public liability for Stacks Goudkamp – is preparing lawsuits for two clients, and has also been approached by others impacted by the tragedy; including some still receiving hospital care.

The pending legal action is against the Royal Caribbean Group; the cruise ship company which operates Ovation of the Seas. Passengers purchased their tickets to travel to White Island on the fateful day direct from the world’s second-largest cruise company.

Other lawyers in Australia and the US are heading other legal cases.

The size of the claims against Royal Caribbean Group would depend on individual circumstances, Yousef said.

“The progress of each claim depends on each person; the recovery progress, their individual losses, their individual situation,” she said.

“I am sure you can appreciate even though it is almost a year ago, it is still early days especially from a medical perspective to do with physical injuries … also the psychological and psychiatric injuries really do take time to show themselves.

“In order for people to bring a claim purely based on psychiatric and psychological injures they have to be a recognised diagnosed of a condition that is beyond the usual grief that anyone would suffer. It takes a bit of time to figure out whether people are suffering from a recognisable condition or whether it is the normal grief.”

The nature of what happened to those who had ventured on to White Island were extremely traumatising, she said.

“Every time my mind turns to thinking about what those people would have suffered, it is just absolutely horrendous,” Yousef said.

“Basically being burnt alive, people witnessing others melting before their eyes. And not to mention the respiratory problems they would have experienced just by inhaling all the gases and vapours.

“People think of burns as affecting the skin and causing scarring, but also the internal injuries are horrific; injuries that a lot of people can never truly overcome.”

Royal Caribbean has said it would “not comment on pending litigation”.

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