New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is facing calls to intervene in the prosecution of a former SAS soldier who led a daring helicopter mission to save tourists from White Island/Whakaari eruption.
Pilot Mark Law, 49, was widely hailed a hero when he and three colleagues landed on the island when emergency services deemed it too dangerous to fly there and brought 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 9 December 2019. Twenty-two people died and some of the survivors, including British mother and daughter Liz and Heather McGill, suffered horrific burns.
But now Law and his company Kahu Helicopters face a fine of up to NZ$1.4m (£750,000) after the country’s health and safety authority, WorkSafe, investigated all the firms involved in tourism on the island.
WorkSafe has charged 10 organisations, including the two government agencies responsible for monitoring volcanic activity and for responding to emergencies, plus the three brothers who own the island.
All the 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.
The decision to prosecute Law, and fellow pilot Tim Barrow’s company Volcanic Air, however, has provoked outrage, with more than 120,000 people signing a petition demanding the charges be dropped.
Law said he was “gutted” to learn he was being charged. “I think the petition is really a reflection of New Zealand and what they think if what’s going on,” he told Australia’s 9 News. “The outpouring is really the frustration that people who went to help are being prosecuted.
“It does appear that we are being prosecuted for being out there and investigating and to recover people but it is really about 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 in New Zealand’s SAS in war zones in Africa before starting his helicopter business more than 20 years ago – battled through thick, acidic fumes and deep ash to reach survivors alongside 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 reached the nearest airport in Whakatāne would be joining them at the volcano because overseers had decided it was unsafe.
Instead, they loaded five survivors each into his and Storey’s helicopters and a further two into Barrow’s and flew to the nearest hospital at Whakatāne.
Storey later said: “If it hadn’t been for Mark Law I don’t know how things would have gone. I just can’t speak highly enough of him, of how he grouped us all up and gave us a job we could focus on.”
WorkSafe said none of the events following the eruption affect the responsibilities of all adventure tourism operators to have an audited safety management plan taking “all reasonable steps” to protect staff and clients.
However, WorkSafe itself is in charge of approving the plans, a role that has prompted accusations from the pilots’ supporters of a conflict of interest.
Ned Dawson, publisher of a New Zealand helicopter magazine and organiser of the petition, wrote on his website:
“Mark and Tim epitomise 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 then you will probably get hung out to dry by some govt dept looking for people to blame.”
His feelings were endorsed by one of the country’s most experienced rescue pilots, John Funnell, who flew over White Island during the eruption and relayed messages from Law and his team to emergency service chiefs on the mainland 50km (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 wise after the event and make all these claims,” he said. “WorkSafe had their people there two months before. If it was so dangerous, why didn’t they shut it down then?”
In response, WorkSafe CEO Phil Parkes said in November that although it oversees the audits of adventure tourism operators, “ultimately it is the responsibility of each business to run their business safely”. He said he was “absolutely confident” that WorkSafe was the right agency to look into what happened on the island.
When announcing the charges, Parkes said his investigators had looked solely at events prior to 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 there were appropriate systems in place to ensure they made it home healthy and safe.
“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 told the Guardian it would not be making any further comment.
Ardern has previously said it was an “independent decision” for WorkSafe to lay the charges.