Watersports

Whakaari/White Island: Travel agency broke safety rules before deadly eruption

Boats owned by White Island Tours failed to meet maritime standards during an audit ahead of a deadly eruption that killed 21 people.

A regulator also slapped one of its ships with a health and safety improvement notice in 2017 in response to a hazard that injured a passenger.

And in the years before the Whakaari/White Island explosion, passengers were forced to transfer to other company ships due to engine problems on six occasions.

Flowers on a docked White Island Tours ship after the eruption.

ANDY JACKSON

Flowers on a docked White Island Tours ship after the eruption.

Thing obtained emails and documents through the Official Information Act detailing the company’s dealings with Maritime NZ before and after the December 9 eruption.

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*The Whakaari/White Island Tour Marine Safety Plan does not address blowouts

Maritime NZ, the nautical equivalent of Worksafe, regulates health and safety on ships.

A White Island Tours sign touting a trip to an active volcano on a dock in Whakatāne.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

A White Island Tours sign touting a trip to an active volcano on a dock in Whakatāne.

Blair Simmons, a regulator’s maritime officer, audited White Island Tours on June 23, 2017, a month after Ngāti Awa bought the operation for $9 million from Peter and Jenny Tait.

Simmons found three “nonconformities”, or areas where the Whakatāne company broke maritime rules.

Do you know more? Email george.block@stuff.co.nz

CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF

Helicopter pilot Mark Law talks about salvage recovery at White Island.

Parachute flares on the Predator ship had expired, while lifting and cargo equipment on Predator and Phoenix lacked test certificates, Simmons found.

He also discovered shortcomings in the maintenance of health and safety records, although he described all shortcomings as “minor”.

Other observations included that the records showed good internal reporting of several accidents and incidents.

The PeeJay V sank in flames as it returned from White Island in 2016. Skipper David Plews, top left, surveys the damage as a fire tears through his boat.

Provided

The PeeJay V sank in flames as it returned from White Island in 2016. Skipper David Plews, top left, surveys the damage as a fire tears through his boat.

However, the company should have informed Maritime NZ of several of the accidents and incidents and failed to do so, including main engine failures and injuries to passengers after falls, he wrote.

The month after the audit, Simmons slapped the boat Phoenix with a health and safety improvement notice.

He said the Occupational Health and Safety Act was likely breached via an exposed tripping hazard anchor and chain, which had already injured a passenger, as well as guardrails of insufficient height to prevent falls over the bow.

A health and safety improvement notice issued to White Island Tours in 2017, obtained from Maritime NZ via the Official Information Act.

George Block

A health and safety improvement notice issued to White Island Tours in 2017, obtained from Maritime NZ via the Official Information Act.

The company fixed the issues in early August 2017, according to an email.

Correspondence the day after the eruption showed that the three boats operating on the day had valid papers and that their skippers held the required tickets.

All ships had the guide-to-passenger ratio of 1:10 required when the volcano was at Alert Level Two, compared to 1:15 for Alert Level One.

An email from a Maritime NZ inspector outlining the results of a 2017 audit, which found several shortcomings.

George Block

An email from a Maritime NZ inspector outlining the results of a 2017 audit, which found several shortcomings.

Phoenix technically exceeded its maximum allowable number of passengers during the evacuation of 25 people from White Island because the Te Puia Whakaari boat was inoperable due to ash fallout.

Maritime NZ understood this was due to the exceptional circumstances following the explosion and was not investigating, Simmons said in an email on December 20.

On January 18, 2016, the White Island Tours boat PeeJay V caught fire, forcing 60 people to abandon ship.

The Carriage Accident Investigation Board found that the boat had an ineffective fire-fighting system which staff did not know how to use.

Since June 2017, the company has recorded eight cases of engine problems.

These included six where passengers had to be transferred to another ship, according to an email from Simmons.

The company said in a statement that the violations identified in 2017 were considered “minor” by the regulator.

“White Island Tours Limited had acquired and operated the business for less than two months at the time of the audit, and worked in conjunction with Maritime NZ to quickly resolve the issues.

“We take the safety of our staff and customers very seriously, and all incidents and issues during our visits are discussed and appropriate corrections or improvements made.”

No decision has been made regarding future visits to Whakaari/White Island and it is not currently under review, the statement said.

The company’s tours to Moutohorā/Whale Island resumed in January.