A woman burned during a Whakaari/White Island expedition in 2011 says a golden opportunity was missed to improve safety on trips to the volcano.
Keira Togneri, who lives in Abderdeen, Scotland, recounted the moment her foot plunged into boiling mud while touring Whakaari.
White Island Tours trip guides did not have first aid kits, there were no burn dressings on the boat and the company allowed the tour to continue pending medical attention, it said. she stated.
An occupational health and safety investigation into the Whakaari/White Island eruption could take a year. (Video first published on December 16, 2019)
She came forward after it was revealed that Maritime NZ had previously asked the company to improve its security ahead of the eruption. which killed 21 people.
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Togneri was on the vacation of a lifetime when she signed up for an expedition with White Island Tours on December 21, 2011.
During the trip, an offhand comment from staff about the dangers of the volcano raised eyebrows, and her concerns grew when the group was transferred ashore on inflatable boats without being given life jackets, she said. .
They began their walk with two guides, one of whom, according to Togneri, was new and seemed inexperienced.
The guide went to the head of the group while the more experienced staff member was at the back.
As they crossed the rocky ground, the guide at the back of the group radioed his colleague to tell her that she had to change direction because the way forward was unsafe.
The guide changed course and crossed what looked like a dry river bed.
Togneri followed, assuming she would be safe to follow in his footsteps.
“As I was crossing, my foot literally plunged through the surface and into this bubbling mud.
“If you imagine running your finger over the top of a pie crust, that’s basically what it was for my foot.
“I heard everyone gasping behind me.”
The guides did not have a first aid kit but poured water from a drinking bottle on his leg.
Togneri hobbled back to the dock as the rest of the group continued their rounds.
She was greeted by a business manager who offered her a bucket of seawater for her leg but had no burn dressing, she said.
“I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t get my foot out of the water, it was too stinging.”
Togneri waited on the platform for 90 minutes as the tour continued.
When she returned to dry land in Whakatane, little help was received, she said.
A company bus driver offered to take her back to Rotorua, but only after dropping everyone off.
It took five hours before she received treatment for the burn in hospital.
She spent the rest of her time in New Zealand going to medical appointments every other day and her leg became infected.
Togneri cut her trip short and returned to the UK.
At the time, she wanted to take legal action.
“You expect a certain level of risk when you go to an active volcano, but I don’t think I realized the extent of the risk.
“I felt this was exceptional and that the company’s actions had been dangerous and they had failed to get me the proper medical treatment.”
But her insurer found it cheaper to pay her compensation, given the expense of fighting a legal battle halfway around the world, she said.
Eight years later, she was horrified to hear reports of deaths on a New Zealand volcano and immediately suspected that White Island Tours was involved.
She fears regulators missed a key opportunity to improve safety after her experience.
NZDF Colonel Rian McKinstry shows us what the recovery team wore to stay safe during their operation on White Island (this video was first posted in December).
Peter and Jenny Tait, the Whakatane couple who owned the business at the time of the incident in 2011, did not respond to a request for comment.
White Island Tours is now owned by Ngati Awa, who bought the business from the Taits in 2017 for $9 million.
The company said in an email that the incident happened more than eight years ago and was unrelated to its current operation.
“We therefore hold no record of this incident or any changes that may have been implemented immediately after.”
WorkSafe NZ did not exist in 2011, but absorbed the functions of the Department of Labor team responsible for investigating such incidents at the time.
A spokeswoman said any questions about the incident should be treated as a formal information request, which has a 20-working-day time limit.
The regulator declined to say whether it was investigating the Togneri incident as part of its inquiry into the 2019 eruption.