White Island Tours "couldn't have been a safer company".
That's the view of former Whakatāne mayor and Whakaari dive tour operator Tony Bonne, six months on from December's Whakaari / White Island eruption.
There are now 27 staff - 10 based in Whakatāne - working on WorkSafe's Whakaari eruption investigation.
Penalties and criminal sanctions for any party which may be found at fault range from $50,000 to $3 million and up to five years in prison, for breaches of health and safety law.
The day after the eruption, geoscientist Emeritus Professor Ray Cas from Monash University in Melbourne said the daily tour group visits at Whakaari were "a disaster waiting to happen for many years".
New Zealand academics had also referenced seven life-threatening "near misses" at Whakaari since 2006, in research published in 2018.
But Bonne believed White Island Tours "couldn't have been a safer company" having won the 'Safe 365, 2018 Safest Place to Work Award' for Small Businesses in New Zealand in 2018.
"What's happened, it's just a tragedy. If the eruption happened an hour later ... they would still be going to the island today," he said.
"The board of White Island Tours must be sitting there trying to work out what they can do for the future. It's a massive loss for that company. And that's our local iwi [Ngāti Awa ownership] so we want them to succeed."
Commercial fisherman Steve Haddock operated charters around White Island in the 1990s and his close friends are skippers with White Island Tours.
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"You don't want to see anybody have charges in a natural disaster," he told NZME this week.
He calls the island his "second home".
"I've been on it quite a few times - but I'd never go on it again."
"There's no need," Haddock said.
"We've been past it regularly lately ... The helicopter's still sitting there drooped like a wet bloody rat, just hanging there."
Haddock remembers the island "pumping out ash" regularly in the 1980s in his first decade at sea.
"The worst I had was stones falling on the boat - but I've had ash hundreds of times ... Boats that I worked on got covered in ash, thick. In the morning you'd have to keep everybody in until you had hosed the boat down."
WorkSafe auditors QSI/AdventureMark renewed White Island Tours' registration status in 2017, for three years, ending on November 19, 2020.
Steph van Dusschoten, who owns and operates Diveworks Charters off the Whakatāne coast with her husband Phil, said "it would be terrible to think that you couldn't do it [visit Whakaari] again".
"Think about the thousands of people that have been on it and then it just happened to be that one [tour]," she said.
"I don't think we were concerned but as an active volcano, there was always a risk."
She had hoped nobody was on the island when it erupted.
"Then the marine radio came on and our hearts just sank ... The radio went nuts."
Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner told NZME: "What happens in the future around Whakaari is yet to be determined and not a decision we as local government will have a say in.
"I suspect that there remains a public intrigue around active volcanoes. We hope all of our tourism operators will bounce back after Covid, and I'm sure White Island Tours will be looking at what they can do to pivot."
WorkSafe declined NZME's request for a copy of the most recent audit of White Island Tours and declined to comment on this story while investigations were ongoing.
Police are also investigating the Whakaari deaths on behalf of the Coroner.