White Island eruption: Karakia to be held on two-year anniversary in honour of first responders who put their lives on the line

A tribute to honor the heroes of the Whakaari/White Island disaster will be held on Thursday to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the tragedy that claimed 22 lives. 

More than 20 people suffered severe burns, many of whom sustained life-changing injuries, when the active volcano - a popular tourist destination off the coast of the Bay of Plenty - explosively erupted on December 9, 2019. Forty-seven people were on the volcano at the time, 22 of whom died - including two whose bodies were never found. Ongoing seismic activity, toxic gasses, poor weather and low visibility hampered efforts to recover the bodies over the following week. 

First responders and selfless locals were praised in the aftermath of the tragedy for their heroic actions, many of whom put their own lives on the line to save the victims.

"I have no doubt that they saved lives at great risk to their own personal safety," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said shortly after the disaster.

Now, two years on, a karakia - a Māori incantation or prayer - will be held by the Whakatāne District Council to honour those who risked their lives to help the victims of Whakaari/White Island.

"There are some remarkable stories of heroism, which we will never forget, and people who did some incredibly brave things - put their own lives on the line," Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner told Newshub on Wednesday.

"It gives you a real appreciation for people who devote their lives to being first responders and medical [staff]. I've never felt more proud or more amazed at the work that they do than I was that night."

As of August, all agencies and parties facing charges by WorkSafe in relation to the eruption had pleaded not guilty following a hearing in June

Worksafe alleges 10 organisations and the island's three owners failed in their duty of care to visitors of the island.

The charged tourist companies are Whakaari Management Ltd, Volcanic Air Safaris Ltd, White Island Tours Ltd, Kahu New Zealand Ltd, Aerius Ltd, ID Tours Ltd, Tauranga Tourism Services Ltd and Inflite Charters Ltd.  Also facing charges are government agencies Geological and Nuclear Sciences Limited (GNS) and the National Emergency Management Agency. The owners of the island are James, Peter, and Andrew Buttle, who are also the directors of Whakaari Management Ltd.

When the charges were laid, WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said it concluded the most extensive and complex investigation ever undertaken by the health and safety regulator.