New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern faces calls to intervene in the prosecution of a former SAS soldier who led a daring helicopter mission to save tourists from the White Island / Whakaari eruption.
Pilot Mark Law, 49, was hailed as a hero when he and three colleagues landed on the island. when the emergency services deemed it too dangerous to fly there and took 12 people to hospital on the mainland.
Forty-seven tourists and guides were trapped when the island, New Zealand’s most active volcano, erupted without warning on December 9, 2019. Twenty-two people died and some of the survivors, including British mother and daughter Liz. and Heather McGill, suffered horrible burns. .
But now Law and his company Kahu Helicopters face a fine of up to NZ $ 1.4 million (£ 750,000) after the country’s health and safety authority, WorkSafe, investigated all companies involved in tourism on the island.
WorkSafe has indicted 10 organizations, including the two government agencies responsible for monitoring volcanic activity and responding to emergencies, in addition to the three brothers who own the island.
All parties were due to make an initial court appearance in Auckland on Tuesday, but asked for more time to review the evidence against them. The hearing has been delayed until March 2021.
However, the decision to prosecute Law and fellow pilot Tim Barrow’s Volcanic Air company has sparked outrage, with more than 120,000 people signing a petition demanding the charges be dropped.
Law said he was “gutted” upon learning he was being charged. “I think the petition is really a reflection of New Zealand and what they think of what is going on,” he told Australia’s 9 News. “The outpouring is really the frustration that the people who went to help are being prosecuted.
“It seems like they are prosecuting us for being out there and investigating and recovering people, but it is really from the years leading up to the eruption.”
It was a “tremendous feeling”, he added, “to have that support from New Zealand.”
In December 2019, Law, who served New Zealand’s SAS in war zones in Africa before starting his helicopter business more than 20 years ago, fought through thick, acidic fumes and deep ash to reach survivors. along with fellow pilots Jason Hill and Tom Storey.
Only when they were on the island did they learn that none of the 11 emergency service helicopters that had arrived at the nearest airport in Whakatāne would join them on the volcano because supervisors had decided it was unsafe.
Instead, they loaded five survivors each into their helicopters and Storey’s, and two more into Barrow’s, and flew to the nearest hospital in Whakatāne.
Storey later said: “If it hadn’t been for Mark Law, I don’t know how things would have turned out. I can’t speak highly enough of him, of how he brought us all together and gave us a job we could focus on. “
WorkSafe said none of the post-eruption events affect the responsibilities of all adventure tourism operators to have an audited safety management plan that takes “all reasonable steps” to protect staff and customers.
However, WorkSafe itself is in charge of approving the plans, a function that has led to accusations by sympathizers of the pilots of a conflict of interest.
Ned Dawson, editor of a New Zealand helicopter magazine and organizer of the petition, wrote on his website:
“Mark and Tim embody the Kiwi spirit. Do we really want to show this generation and the next that if you go out of your way to help others in a time of need, some government department is likely to leave you hanging to dry up looking for people to blame? ”.
His sentiments were backed up by one of the country’s most experienced rescue pilots, John Funnell, who flew over the White Island during the eruption and relayed messages from Law and his team to the chiefs of emergency services on the mainland 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Funnell, who is also raising funds through a GiveALittle page to pay for Law’s legal fees, described Law’s operation as “second to none.” “It’s very easy to be cautious after the event and make all these claims,” he said. “WorkSafe had its people there two months earlier. If it was so dangerous, why didn’t they close it then? “
In response, WorkSafe CEO Phil Parkes said in November that while he oversees audits of adventure travel operators, “ultimately, it is the responsibility of each company to run its business safely”. He said he was “absolutely certain” that WorkSafe was the right agency to investigate what happened on the island.
In announcing the charges, Parkes said his investigators had only looked at the events before the eruption, not the rescue and recovery mission, which was a matter for the police.
He said: “Those who went to the island did so with the reasonable expectation that appropriate systems were in place to ensure that they returned home in a healthy and safe manner.
“This was an unexpected event, but that does not mean it was unpredictable and operators have an obligation to protect the people in their care.”
WorkSafe told The Guardian it would not comment further.
Ardern has previously said it was an “independent decision” for WorkSafe to press charges.
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