WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A trial of New Zealand tourism operators accused of safety breaches after 22 people died in a 2019 volcanic eruption ended Tuesday with the last remaining defendant found guilty on one count.
The three-month, judge-only trial against 13 groups already saw six plead guilty and six have charges against them dismissed. The charges were brought by regulators and carried fines as a maximum penalty.
White Island, the tip of an undersea volcano also known by its Indigenous Māori name Whakaari, was a popular tourist destination before the eruption. There were 47 tourists and tour guides on the island when superheated steam erupted, killing some people instantly and leaving others with agonizing burns.
The final remaining defendant in the trial was Whakaari Management Ltd., the holding company for the island’s owners: Andrew, James and Peter Buttle.
Judge Evangelos Thomas found the company guilty on one charge, saying it had failed to do a risk assessment despite being aware of an eruption three years earlier, which hadn’t harmed anybody because it happened at night.
“What should then have been obvious to every Whakaari stakeholder was that any risk assessment and risk management processes in place had failed,” the judge said. “They would not have prevented serious injury or loss of life had tours been operating on the island at the time.”
The judge said the company should then have sought expert advice and either stopped the tours entirely or put controls in place. The judge dismissed a second charge against the company.
Among those to testify in the trial were a newly married couple from Richmond, Virginia, who both survived the eruption.
Lauren Urey, 35, said she and her husband Matt ran for their lives and hid behind rocks after seeing a huge plume rising from the volcano.
“I remember me screaming in agony. My body was sizzling,” Lauren Urey told the judge. “I said: ‘I love you so much. I’m going to die today.’”
The organizations that had earlier pleaded guilty included three companies that operated helicopter tours, one that operated boat tours, a scenic flight operator, and New Zealand scientific agency GNS Science.
The organizations will be sentenced in February, with each facing a maximum fine of 1.5 million New Zealand dollars ($875,000).