Whakaari sentencing hearing: Pain of son's death 'never goes away'

4:45 pm on 26 February 2024
Paula Maangi, mother of 23-year-old tour guide Tipene Maangi who died in the Whakaari eruption, gave her impact statement to the sentencing hearing at the Environment Court in Auckland, 26 February 2024.

Paula Maangi, mother of 23-year-old tour guide Tipene Maangi who died in the Whakaari eruption, gave her impact statement to the sentencing hearing at the Environment Court Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

Some family members of 23-year-old tour guide Tipene Maangi, who died in the Whakaari White Island eruption, broke down in tears as they gave their impact statements in court.

The two-week sentencing hearing for six parties over health and safety failures in the lead-up to the eruption began at the Environment Court in Auckland on Monday morning.

It follows a criminal trial into the 2019 disaster which killed 22 people and injured 25 others.

Tipene Maangi worked as a guide for White Island Tours at the time of the eruption.

His family told the court their lives have been changed forever, with many still struggling with grief and mental health challenges four years later.

His mother, Paula Maangi, said she had considered taking her own life in times of pain.

Her husband withdrew from family to deal with grief alone, and died in a car accident in less than a year after the loss of their son, she said.

Maangi said her daughter also shut down emotionally and stopped going to school.

The pain "never goes away", she told the court. Her son was a fluent te reo speaker, a great singer, and a generous brother who took his younger siblings to Rainbow's End just two days before he died.

Maangi said she was still in disbelief that people were allowed on the island when it was at alert level two.

Judge Evangelos Thomas said the hearing was an important moment in the history of the island and the history of the tragedy.

Judge Thomas acknowledged four years was far too long to wait for the voices of those affected to be heard.

Judge Evangelos Thomas at the Whakaari sentencing, 26 February 2024. Six companies are being sentenced in the two-week hearing held in Auckland at the Environment Court, following a criminal trial into the 2019 disaster which killed 22 people and injured 25 others.

Judge Evangelos Thomas at the Whakaari sentencing, Auckland, 26 February 2024. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Alongside Whakaari Management which was found guilty, the companies that pleaded guilty and are due to be sentenced are White Island Tours on two charges, the three helicopter companies Volcanic Air, Aerius and Kahu each on two charges, and GNS on one charge.

Judge Thomas earlier said GNS, the crown research institute that monitors volcanoes, would be sentenced separately on Thursday because "the issues relating to GNS are discrete and separate from those relating to other defendants".


WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC said in her opening today that one of the key purposes of sentencing in this case was offering means of reparation for the victims. However, she said the judge's discretion to appropriately sentence in this case was "severely hampered" by the financial incapacity of the defendants.

WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

McDonald said Whakaari Management Ltd (WML), the most culpable of all the defendants, had said it had no money for reparations.

"WML has said it has no money or other assets, and does not offer any money by way of reparation. It advises that it's never had a bank account, never received income, and its role was merely as a corporate trustee of the Whakaari management trust.

"That is revenue, generated through the licensing agreements entered into with WML was not paid to WML but was rather paid directly to the family trust, and is not available for reparation," she said.

The court had heard during the trial that the Buttle brothers were earning about $1 million a year from licensing fees charged to tour operators - for each person visiting the island.

McDonald said White Island Tours had offered $5m in reparation through a statutory insurance policy, and Volcanic Air has offered $300,000 for reparation through a statutory insurance policy.

She said White Island Tours, WML, Volcanic Air, Kahu and Aerius have all said they had no ability to pay a fine and asked the court to not impose a fine.

McDonald said WorkSafe's stance was that appropriate fines should be imposed on all defendants who could not pay.

'I miss his laughter' - Maangi family remembers Tipene

Mother Paula Maangi said Tipene was called into work on 9 December, which was not a rostered day for him.

The last time she spoke to her son was on the day of the eruption before his work: "I love you son, have a good day."

Tawhai Maangi, brother of tour guide Tipene Maangi who died at Whakaari, at the sentencing hearing in the Environment Court, Auckland, 26 February 2024.

Tipene Maangi's brother Tawhai Maangi. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Tipene Maangi's brother Tawhai Maangi told the court since losing his brother, he had become a less joyful person. He said he did everything with his brother, and that his brother taught him diving and getting kaimoana.

Tipene Maangi's grandmother Ngaroahiahi "Bunny" Patuwai-Maangi said Tipene was "whānau taonga" or family treasure and was a huge part of my life.

"I miss his laughter, his singing playing guitar, his baking cupcakes and bikkies, his flavoursome meals, his fried bread," she said.

She said still in quiet times she wept alone, and that "there is no time limit for grieving".

'Unable to attain complete closure'

The father of Hayden Marshall-Inman, a guide for White Island Tours who was killed in the 2019 eruption, criticised authorities who lost his son's body.

"Every morning, when I wake up, I can see the White Island in the distance and wonder just where Hayden's body lies as he never came home thanks to [the] incompetence of those responsible for his recovery," Victim Support staffer Colleen Ellis read from Alan Inman-Marshall's statement.

"To this day I've been unable to attain complete closure."

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Hayden Marshall-Inman. Photo: Supplied/ Facebook/ Stephen Parker

Alan Inman-Marshall, himself a former guide for White Island Tours, rejected the idea that the company was responsible for his son's death.

"Contrary to media reports that stated White Island Tours put profits before tourists' safety ... this did not appear to happen during my employment," he said.

"In fact, twice during my 350 trips we were turned around as we were advised by GNS that they had detected some unusual activity on the island."

He said the eruption came without warning and could not have been predicted.

'The worst day of my life'

Judge Evangelos Thomas listens to victims Matt and Lauren Urey's prerecorded statement at at the Whakaari sentencing hearing in the Environment Court, Auckland, 26 February 2024.

Lauren Barham-Urey and Matthew Urey seen in a pre-recorded statement played in court. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

American tourist Lauren Barham-Urey was on a honeymoon with her husband Matthew Urey when both were severely burned.

She described her injuries in a pre-recorded statement.

"Over the past four years I've had at least 75 reconstructive surgeries and laser procedures," she said.

"I cannot begin to express the pain and suffering that I've had to endure since the eruption, it was truly the worst day of my life."

Barham-Urey was placed into a coma for two weeks after developing hypothermia on her way back to shore.

"After waking up from the coma ... I remember wishing I had died in the eruption," she said through tears.

"I had gone from being independent to being totally dependent on my family, and I thought I would never be the same."

She said the scarring on her face and body made her embarrassed to go outside, and she spent more than US$2000 (approx NZ$3200) on wigs to replace her lost hair.

"They never looked right on me... I felt like everyone was always staring at me and wondering what was wrong," she said.

"It took around two years for my hair to grow back to a length I didn't feel self-conscious about."