Funds being raised to defend pilot 'who led the charge' in Whakaari rescue

12:25 pm on 4 December 2020

Veteran pilot John Funnell wants to raise tens of thousands of dollars to fund the legal battle for a fellow pilot who was one of the first on the scene after the Whakaari eruption.

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Photo: Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter trust

Kahu Helicopters, Volcanic Air and Aerius are all helicopter companies who operated tours to the island and are facing legal action.

GNS, The National Emergency Management Agency and the owners of the island, the Buttles, have also been charged.

The charges related to events before the eruption and had nothing to do with the rescue and recovery afterwards.

Funnell was in the air during the rescue directing the helicopters and communicating with those on the mainland.

He has set up a fund for Mark Law, director of Kahu Helicopters, who rescued five people from the island, to help with legal battles as his business is now close to collapse.

"All the staff have been laid off, what helicopters they had leased have been sent back. There was penalties with that undoubtedly.

"He's had to sell his hangar and wind the whole company up.

"He does have an interest in another helicopter that he's trying to get going, but really income wise, he in particular is in a very difficult situation, but also so are all these other helicopter operators.

"They will all be facing similar financial issues."

Funnell estimated the legal bills could be in the tens of thousands, maybe more, for Kahu alone.

He said the aviation and wider community had come to him wanting to offer Law financial support.

"Well, it's fair to say that a lot of people think that WorkSafe have grossly overstepped the mark in this situation here.

"Mark Law led the charge to get those people off White Island.

"Him with Tim Barrow from Volcanic Air were the two main operators along with their pilots that went into White Island immediately following the eruption and uplifted those people that were still on the island and got them back to the mainland so treatment could commence."

The veteran pilot said Kahu had been a leader in setting up an recovery plan in the event of an emergency, but WorkSafe did not agree.

'It worries me that if people like him and Volcanic Air are found to be having an inadequate safety plan. The rest of the industry has got some major problems if that is the case."

In the event Law and the other helicopter companies were found guilty for breaches against the health and safety act, they would not be in a position to pay the fines, he said.

Each charge carries a maximum of $1.5 million.

Funnell thought WorkSafe should point the finger at itself.

"Personally, I believe that WorkSafe should be investigated themselves, I think there's been a failing on their part.

"It's very easy for Worksafe after an event to come along and make these claims on an unsafe operation.

"It's easy to do that lay all these charges, and there is a raft of them, and its then up to the operator to have to defend those charges and that's where all the costs comes in."

Funnell defended the actions of the pilots connected to the disaster.

"No one set out that day to cause any danger to anyone, a lot of work had been put in to going to White Island and minimizing the risk.

"But this was, if you like, an act of God.

"None of the laying of these charges is going to bring these people back."

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