2 Dec 2020

Ministers at odds over need to further Whakaari / White Island investigation

6:45 am on 2 December 2020

Ministers are at odds over the need for further investigation into the Whakaari / White Island rescue and recovery mission.

This handout photograph courtesy of Michael Schade shows the volcano on New Zealand's White Island spewing steam and ash minutes following an eruption on December 9, 2019.

Photo: AFP / Michael Schade

A major WorkSafe inquiry has charged 13 parties after examining events leading up to the eruption that killed 22 people.

But there are no plans to scrutinise the decision to not send emergency services to the volcano immediately after the eruption, and the chaotic civilian-led rescue operation.

Lillani Hopkins left Whakaari on board a White Island Tour Boat just moments before it erupted.

When a dinghy launched from the boat to rescue people, she volunteered to save as many as she could.

"Looking back at it now, I think to myself 'oh, it is kind of weird that no one came to help' but at that moment and at the time it didn't even cross my mind.

"I think I was just too preoccupied with helping other people to even think about anything other than them," Hopkins said.

As Hopkins helped move the injured onto the tour boat, local helicopter pilots were travelling to Whakaari to rescue survivors.

No one else was coming - back in Whakatāne, rescue crews were ordered to stay put.

Civil Defence led the response and the minister responsible, Kiri Allan, was asked if there is anything on her radar to suggest she should be concerned about the decisions it made.

"No, there's nothing that gives me cause of concern to date," Allan said.

WorkSafe has examined the lead up to the disaster, but there are currently no plans to independently investigate the recovery and response mission.

Once again, Allan said, so far such an inquiry hasn't been suggested.

"To date, I haven't received advice that that's been a necessary course of action," Allan said.

Police Minister Poto Williams does not see the need for an independent investigation.

"As far as I'm concerned, if there are any questions to be answered, we've got a process through the IPCA," Williams said.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare said there could be merit in analysing how the Defence Force responded to the explosion.

"We're always looking to improve the Defence Force, the Burnham Inquiry is another one of those opportunities, just like this might be. So we'll have the opportunity to take those into consideration," Henare said.

National leader Judith Collins promised a Royal Commission, which would investigate all aspects of the disaster, during the election campaign.

But it appeared she has somewhat walked that back.

"It is very clear to me that we do need to know everything that's happened there and I think particularly for the families involved, but now that there are matters before the court it's probably best to wait," Collins said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern does not see the need for a Royal Commission, viewing it as a double up of work done by WorkSafe and the Coroner.

But without an independent inquiry, many questions about the rescue and recovery mission could remain unanswered.

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