Friday, December 9, 2022

Why no royal commission on the Whakaari disaster?

It’s three years today since Whakaari/White Island erupted, killing 22 people. Netflix has made a documentary on the disaster that will screen next week.

In the meantime, a former IT manager with the New Zealand Fire Service has posed an important question: why no public inquiry?

In a column published in the New Zealand Herald, Alan Thompson pointed out that similar catastrophes in the past (Mt Erebus, Pike River, the Ballantyne’s fire and the Christchurch mosque atrocities are obvious examples) were the subject of royal commissions that examined their causes, established fault where appropriate and came up with recommendations on how similar events might be avoided in future.

The official explanation for the government’s inaction over the Whakaari disaster was that Worksafe and the Chief Coroner were both conducting inquiries, the latter of which apparently won’t proceed until the former has been completed.

But as Thompson points out, both inquiries are limited in their scope. The big questions – what went wrong, why it went wrong and how a recurrence might be avoided – won’t necessarily be answered.

Thompson doesn’t attempt to explain the government’s reluctance to lift the lid on Whakaari, but we can form our own conclusions. The obvious one is that the tragedy was a major international embarrassment and the government doesn’t want to risk making things worse by drawing attention to whatever factors caused it.

On the basis of what we know already, complacency – the “she’ll be right” mentality – would be one of those factors.

What distinguishes Whakaari from the other disasters mentioned above is the potential harm to the image of the New Zealand tourist industry. Of the 47 people caught in the eruption, 41 were from overseas. Many of the survivors were left with appalling injuries that left them permanently scarred. That means there would be international interest in the findings of a royal commission.

Pre-Covid, international tourism vied with dairying as our biggest income earner. Adventure tourism is a big part of the country’s appeal and the last thing the industry needs, just when it’s starting to recover from the pandemic, is an official report that presents the country as an unsafe destination.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how a commission could reach any conclusion other than that the risk to tourists visiting Whakaari was gravely understated by everyone involved and that emergency planning - assuming an eruption could be planned for at all - was hopelessly inadequate.

To make matters worse, the official response to the eruption was hesitant and indecisive. It was only due to the prompt action and extraordinary heroism of volunteer rescuers, including helicopter pilots, that more lives weren’t lost.

We are now left with the unedifying spectacle of Worksafe, the government agency charged with ensuring health and safety in the workplace, appearing to absolve itself of any blame for the deaths and injuries and making itself unpopular by prosecuting some of the people who put their lives on the line to save others. A royal commission might not let Worksafe off the hook so easily.





Trev1 said...

If I recall correctly GNS had recently raised the alert level and had stopped its own people from going to the island. While the tour company was run by Maori interests and the island was in private ownership, did the government have a responsibility to ensure those wanting to visit the island were aware of the heightened risk of an eruption?

rouppe said...

I don't agree.

There was no overt indication that White Island was about to erupt like that.

If you're going to have an inquiry into that, why not the sink hole that opened at the Maori Village in Rotorua recently, severely injuring at least one person?

Or the people that fell into geothermal openings in Kuirau Park when I grew up in Rotorua?

Or into their own bore holes in their back yard?

Or the Mt Ruapehu eruption that sent a lahar down the mountain? The main reason that didn't injure anyone was the time of day it happened.

Or the eruption that sent a massive rock through the roof of Kitetahi Hut? Again, blind luck no one was there.

White Island was a tragedy. But the eruption was a natural event.

Andy Espersen said...

No Royal Commission is needed to "find out what went wrong". That sure does not take an Einstein. The volcano had been set at alert level 2 - and, because of the danger, our volcanologists had ceased visiting the Island!!!

Our volcanologists MUST have been aware that a tourist company was still taking tourists on daily visits right to the crater edge.

Ought not the volcanologists have notified the authorities in Wellington of the obvious danger??

Yobi said...

They should have a royal inquiry into the White Island disaster as well, White Island is a place all New Zealanders know and have heard of.

Karl du Fresne said...

Where natural features such as mountains, lakes, rivers and islands have a Maori name that predated European settlement, my inclination is to use those names. However that doesn't apply to cities and towns which are essentially European creations, so you won't find mention on this blog of Tamaki Makaurau, Otepoti or Kirikiriroa.

Hiko said...

Andy Espersen
Volcanologists are presumably experts in their field and also presumably on the public purse
It has been reported that they had banned their own staff from the island due to the elevated risk. It was in my opinion their duty as experts to warn the tour operator and relative authorities as you state Questions need to be asked
The ownership of the tour company may be a reason why not

Eamon Sloan said...

New Zealand does not do self-examination unless it is forced to. Or unless there is some perceived political advantage accruing to whichever party is in power.

The White Island disaster was probably in the category of “waiting to happen”. Just as was the Tangiwai rail disaster (1953). Both disasters were if you like matters of nature’s freakish timing.

Over the years I have asked why have we not had more in depth, and more timely, enquiries into some of the major road accidents. All we seem to have is a Coroner’s enquiry which as a matter of course does not see the light of day until a couple of years later. Coroner’s recommendations might then seem to be too little too late.

Marine accidents also seem to disappear off the radar. There is the recent case of the drownings off the Kaikoura coast. The boat on a bird-watching expedition capsized and five people drowned. It is thought the boat, in calm water at the time, was overturned by a whale. People onshore at the time claimed to have seen a whale in the vicinity. Meantime whale-watching excursions continue.

Connect the dots if you can between White Island excursions and Kaikoura whale-watching.