A lawsuit opened on Tuesday over New Zealand’s 2019 White Island volcanic eruption, a “massive explosion” that engulfed tourists and killed 22 people, leaving others horribly burned.
Around 50 people, mostly tourists from Australia, were on White Island, also known as Whakaari, in December 2019 when a deadly plume of burning ash and steam shot out of a volcanic vent.
The eruption off the coast of the country’s North Island claimed 22 lives and left dozens more horribly injured, sparking a massive medical operation in which victims were treated in burn units in New Zealand and Australia.
Video footage played in court showed people trying to flee from a huge expanding cloud of volcanic ash, which quickly engulfed them.
In one clip, a guide saw the billowing eruption and yelled at tourists to “move, quick” back to their boat. Some stumbled in their desperation to flee.
Tourists were on a boat watching the volcano erupt on White Island, New Zealand, in December 2019.
Around 50 people, mostly tourists from Australia, were on White Island in December 2019 when a deadly plume of burning ash and steam shot out of a volcanic vent.
“This volcano eruption involved a massive explosion,” attorney for the prosecution, Kristy McDonald, told the Auckland District Court.
It resulted in a flow of “burning ash, boiling sea, poisonous volcanic ash and projected rocks on the crater floor,” it added.
“The pyroclastic current engulfed everyone on the volcano with estimates of speeds of about 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph).”
Six parties, including two tourism companies and the island’s owners, Whakaari Management Limited, have been accused of breaching health and safety regulations before the disaster. They deny having done wrong.
McDonald’s said the family that owns the island was earning about NZ$1 million (£480,000) a year before the disaster struck.
“They profited from every tourist brought to Whakaari,” he told the court.
But the island’s administration failed to make proper risk assessments, provide personal protective equipment or ensure evacuation routes, it said.
“The end result was tourists and workers going into the crater of an active volcano without being adequately warned of the risks,” McDonald added.
The charges do not carry the threat of jail time, but convicted parties could face fines of up to NZ$1.5 million (£720,000).
The trial is expected to last several weeks.
A tourist at the time said that he and his family were at the volcano just 20 minutes before it erupted and witnessed the explosion as they were leaving the island.
An aerial view of the volcano shows thick smoke billowing from the crater, which has been a permanent feature of the island for decades.
Whakaari, also known as White Island, 48 km (29 mi) located off the North Island of New Zealand, erupted at around 2:11 p.m. local time on December 9, 2019, spewing large plumes of smoke and debris 12,000 feet into the sky.
White Island, 48km from the Bay of Plenty region, began to erupt around 2:11pm local time on December 9, 2019.
Six other companies have already pleaded guilty to health and safety charges, including three helicopter tour operators who pleaded guilty on Friday.
Among those who previously pleaded guilty was White Island Tours, which transported 21 of the dead, 19 tourists and two staff members, to the volcanic site by boat.
Volcanic Air Safaris, which carried a tourist who died on the island, also pleaded guilty.
In May last year, a judge cleared New Zealand’s emergency management agency of health and safety breaches.
Since the eruption, no ships or planes have been allowed to land on the island.
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