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.