White Island volcano trial: Unraveling the 2019 disaster that shook New Zealand

A trial opens on Tuesday over New Zealand’s 2019 White Island volcano disaster that killed 22 people at a once-popular tourism spot.

Around 50 people, mostly tourists from Australia, were on White Island — also known as Whakaari — in December 2019 when a deadly column of burning ash and steam blasted from a volcanic vent.

The eruption off the coast of the country’s North Island killed 22 people and left dozens more with horrific injuries, prompting a massive medical operation that saw victims treated in burns units across New Zealand and Australia.

Six parties, including two tour companies and the island’s owners, have been charged with breaching health and safety regulations in the lead up to the disaster.

The charges do not carry the threat of jail time, but parties found guilty could face hefty fines of up to NZ$1.5 million (US$930,000).

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Another six companies have already pleaded guilty to health and safety charges, including three helicopter tour operators, which entered 11th-hour pleas on Friday.

Among those to previously plead guilty were White Island Tours, which ferried 21 of those killed — 19 tourists and two staff — to the volcanic site by boat.

Volcanic Air Safaris, which flew in one tourist who died on the island, has also pleaded guilty.

In May last year, a judge cleared New Zealand’s emergency management agency of health and safety breaches.

Government body WorkSafe, which is leading the prosecution, had accused the agency of failing to properly communicate the risks of an eruption to landowners and the public.

But the agency’s lawyers successfully argued the charge was “wholly misconceived”.

Since the eruption, no boat or aircraft tours have been allowed to land on the island.

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