Whakaari/White Island: Support for petition calling for charges against rescue helicopter pilots to be dropped

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A ruined helicopter covered in ash after the volcano eruption on White Island on December 9, 2019.

The helicopter page / Instagram

A ruined helicopter covered in ash after the volcano eruption on White Island on December 9, 2019.

A petition calling for the charges against Whakaari/White Island pilots involved in the rescue and recovery mission to be dropped has been signed by more than 69,000 people.

The Change.org petition was launched in support of pilots Mark Law, chief executive of Kahu NZ, and Tim Barrow, director and chief pilot at Volcanic Air Helicopters and Floatplanes.

Both men were involved in the initial rescue efforts in the wake of the December 9, 2019, eruption that killed 22 people.

By Saturday morning, over 69,000 signatures had been secured, with more people showing their support every minute. In 90 minutes over 3000 new signatures had been added.

READ MORE:
* Funds being raised to defend pilot ‘who led the charge’ in Whakaari rescue
* Adventure tourism regs under review again, what about WorkSafe’s role?
* GNS Science, White Island Tours included in 13 WorkSafe prosecutions over Whakaari/White Island eruption
* WorkSafe investigators request information from White Island Tours

The petition is asking Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to recognise the extraordinary efforts of Law and Barrow, rather than allowing WorkSafe to charge them.

“These men don’t deserve this treatment – as a Kiwi we make stuff happen when the chips are down,” the petition description read. “Let’s stand up for these true Kiwi heroes.”

Law helped rescue five people from the island, Barrow collected the last survivor. All aircraft involved in the rescue mission reportedly had one person die on board.

Thirteen parties have been charged by WorkSafe – 10 organisations and three individuals. GNS Science, White Island Tours, the National Emergency Management Agency (Civil Defence), and Volcanic Air confirmed they are among those facing charges.

Kahu NZ chief executive Mark Law rescued five people from Whakaari/White Island afteer its eruption in December, 2019.

Christel Yardley/Stuff

Kahu NZ chief executive Mark Law rescued five people from Whakaari/White Island afteer its eruption in December, 2019.

WorkSafe’s investigation and the subsequent charges are in relation to the period leading up to the eruption, not the rescue and recovery options proceeding the eruption.

“This was an unexpected event, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable and there is a duty on operators to protect those in their care,” WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes​ said on Monday.

Post-eruption actions may be subject to other proceedings such as a coronial inquest.

Parkes explained the 13 parties charged did not meet their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 when taking tourists to the island.

“As a nation we need to look at this tragedy and ask if we are truly doing enough to ensure our mothers, fathers, children and friends come home to us healthy and safe at the end of each day.

“It is now up to the judicial system to determine whether they did or not.”

Tim Barrow, Volcanic Air Safari director and chief pilot, helped fly victims to safety after the eruption.

Dominico Zapata/Stuff

Tim Barrow, Volcanic Air Safari director and chief pilot, helped fly victims to safety after the eruption.

WorkSafe would not comment on the petition as the matter is before the court.

Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner​ thought it inappropriate to comment on the petition or the charges due to the court proceedings. She also noted the full details of WorkSafe’s report are yet to be released.

“I understand why they’re upset, I completely understand that, but I think we need to taihoa and just wait to see what the charges are.”

Veteran pilot John Funnell​, who was also involved in the rescue efforts on the island, is raising money to help fund Law’s legal battle.

“The cost of defending these charges is huge, the ramifications are even larger if you don’t defend them,” Funnell said.

The serious charges have come at a time when Law’s business, Kahu Helicopters, is close to collapse.

“They’ve closed down their air transport operations because White Island was the bulk of their work, and, of course, they’ve got no income in order to mount a challenge to make sure they get a fair hearing in court.”

Funnell was aware of the petition but has not followed it, however, he supports anything that could potentially make life easier for these operators facing charges.

“The cost of defending is the biggest hurdle and that’s where I’ve tried to gather money.”



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