Three years ago on December 9, 2019, Whakaari/White Island suddenly and violently commenced a significant eruption event.
Several groups of guided visitors totalling 47 persons were on the island with many close to the erupting vent with others on boats nearby. By the end of the day, five persons were known to have been killed, 34 were rescued by boat or helicopter (many critically injured) and eight were declared as missing (although known to be on the island and deceased).
The final toll of the eruption was 22 deaths as over the following months the horrific burn injuries claimed the lives of nine of the survivors who were rescued. Many of the others were left with significant health issues and associated disabilities.
On the scale of the history of disasters that have occurred in New Zealand, the Whakaari/White Island eruption was right up there in terms of the loss of human life.
Twenty-nine disasters have occurred over the past 100 years where 10 or more persons lost their lives. Dominating the list are the Erebus disaster (257) and the Napier earthquake (256), with the Whakaari/White Island eruption ranking in 13th position behind the Pike River Mine tragedy (29) and the Kaimai air crash (23).
What is very significant with all of these disasters is that the government of the time promptly initiated a rigorous and independent public inquiry. These inquiries critically examined the disaster, what happened, why it happened, how we responded and most importantly, what we learned.
The proceedings were open to the public and the findings and recommendations were published and available to all interested parties.
An example is Ballantyne’s fire (41), which recently recorded its 75th anniversary. The inquiry that followed this disaster identified deficiencies in our fire risk reduction, preparedness and firefighting capability. It made a number of significant recommendations resulting in improved standards for building safety and inspections and the establishment of a national fire service.
Every inquiry from 100 years of disaster events has similarly resulted in the same critical examination of what happened, why it happened and how we responded. This may not have eased any of the pain from the loss of life or of the ongoing suffering for those who survived but it does provide a measure of positive and wider good from such a terrible event.
From the Ballantyne’s fire 75 years ago through to the more recent Pike River Mine explosion we were able to learn important lessons to reduce the likelihood of such a disaster happening again and improve our readiness and response if it does.
The Whakaari/White Island eruption, however, is unique in our history of disasters in NZ and the inquiries that have always followed. As incredible as it may seem, there has not been a formal and independent public inquiry held into this disaster and the Government has steadfastly refused to hold one. This refusal has been based upon very flawed reasoning.
It was apparent some six months after the eruption that the Government was not going to hold an inquiry into the eruption. Letters to emergency services asking for an inquiry all resulted in a “not my responsibility” response.
Subsequent letters to ministers of the agencies stated that there were two inquiries already underway, one by WorkSafe and one would be undertaken by the Chief Coroner. Even the Prime Minister (of what was promised to be the most honest and open government) stuck to the party political line and also insisted that inquiries were underway and were being undertaken by WorkSafe and the Coroner.
Letters and evidence to the ministers and the PM pointing out that Worksafe was only seeking to prosecute those who were permitting or running tours to the island for breaches of rules and regulations relating to their operations.
These would include such administrative misdemeanours as not having a current permit, maybe no first aid kit, perhaps not warning their clients of the significant risks of being on the island, etc. It is timely to remember that these were largely the same people and organisations who, on their own initiative and with great skill and bravery, undertook the rescue and recovery of the injured well before any emergency service got organised and reached the island.
In turn, the Coroner’s inquiry will ultimately be held to determine the date and cause of death of the deceased. However, this will not happen until late 2024 when WorkSafe has completed its “rules and regulations” prosecutions.
It has been pointed out to the ministers and to the PM that neither WorkSafe nor the Coroner intend to, or even have any mandate to, determine why the disaster itself occurred and what could we learn from the tragedy. Even a subsequent petition to Parliament calling for an inquiry was voted down by the Labour majority on the same fundamental falsehoods that WorkSafe and the Coroner were undertaking this important task.
It seems that this government and its officials are very determined that 100 years of learning from such tragic events shall not happen for the Whakaari/White Island disaster.
They are content to see some prosecutions based upon breaches of regulations and for the Coroner to determine the place and time of death but are not interested to learn what went wrong, why it went wrong and most importantly, what we can do better in the future. This is not good enough and is disrespectful to the memory of the 22 people who lost their lives as a result of the eruption on Whakaari/White Island.
This Labour government promised us openness and honesty and yet refuses this duty and the obligation to the victims and their loved ones.
Many questions remain as to why there is no government-sponsored inquiry into the Whakaari/White Island eruption and the response. Three years on, what is it they now don’t want us to know about this tragic disaster?
Alan Thompson is a former information technology manager with the NZ Fire Service and a former rural firefighter and member of NZ Land Search and Rescue.