Survivors Describe Searing Pain from Whakaari Volcanic Eruption in Environmental Safety Trial

Survivors of a devastating volcanic eruption on Whakaari or White Island in New Zealand have testified in a criminal trial against six parties, including the island’s owners, over the 2019 disaster that claimed 22 lives. The trial, brought by WorkSafe, New Zealand’s health and safety regulator, centers around charges of failing to protect tourists visiting the volcanic island. Witnesses have described the horrifying experience of being pelted with burning sand, ash, and rocks during the eruption. They also claim that they were not adequately informed about the potential dangers before the tour.

One survivor, Annie Lu, testified that she and her mother had booked a tour to the island without being warned of the volcano’s activity level. The court was told that the tourists were only given helmets and gas masks and were not given any additional instructions or warnings. When the eruption occurred, Lu experienced intense pain as she was bombarded with burning debris. She likened the feeling to being assaulted with hot needles. Another survivor, Matthew Urey, who was on his honeymoon, recalled seeing a massive black cloud before being instructed to run. He described being enveloped in waves of heat and ash and struggling to breathe.

The trial has highlighted the lack of clear instructions and plans in place for such emergencies. Survivors have said that they were left to rely on their own instincts and luck to find safety. Medical attention on the island was also said to be limited, with water supplies running short as people attempted to wash off the ash. Many of the survivors have experienced extensive physical and mental trauma as a result of the eruption.

The owners of the island, the Buttle brothers, and their company Whakaari Management Ltd (WML) are among the defendants in the trial. WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC argued that the company failed in its duty of care to the tourists. She claimed that not enough was done to ensure the safety of the facilities on the island, despite WML making substantial profits from tourism. The Buttle brothers and WML deny the charges.

Several organizations involved in the tour operations have already pleaded guilty to charges and are awaiting sentencing. The trial is expected to last 16 weeks and carries a maximum fine of 1.5 million New Zealand dollars ($950,000).

Overall, the trial sheds light on the lack of safety measures and inadequate warnings that contributed to the tragic outcome of the volcanic eruption. Survivors continue to grapple with physical and emotional scars, while the defendants face allegations of failing to protect the lives of those visiting the island.