Whakaari eruption victims' families speak in court

Mieke Elzer, sister of Whakaari victim Rick Elzer. speaks at the Auckland District Court as sentencing begins in the Whakaari White Island trial. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi.

The family of a couple killed in the Whakaari White Island eruption have told a sentencing judge they want the companies involved held to account.

Emotional victims and families spoke of their grief and anger at the Environment Court on Monday as a two-week sentencing hearing got underway.

Five companies - including the island's owner, Whakaari Management Limited, tour operators, and the crown research institute GNS Science - have been found guilty of health and safety failings in the lead up to the disaster.

Australian Richard 'Rick' Elzer was at the end of a world tour with his partner Karla Matthews when they were killed in the Whakaari eruption four years ago.

Their family members choked back tears as they recalled the days after the tragedy to the court.

Richard Elzer's sister Shannon said she collapsed on the street when she learned her brother was on the island.

"I still hear my Dad's voice, sobbing the words 'my son', over and over, when he told me what had happened," she told the court.

Peter Elzer, father of Whakaari victim Rick Elzer speaks at the Auckland District Court as sentencing begins in the Whakaari White Island case. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi.

Her father Peter said the death of the young couple had shattered dreams.

"Both succumbed to their injuries and were never able to fulfil their dreams of mutual love, togetherness, and raising their own children.

"I will remember them as forever young at 32 years of age."

Youngest sister Amelia Elzer said she will be never get over the aftermath of her brother's death.

"I experience anxiety attacks on a regular basis, and I know that this has a lot to do with the fear of losing those I care about."

'We had no room to grieve in private'

Amelia, as well as her two sisters, said the constant media coverage of the disaster and its aftermath was traumatic.

"Having the media follow my family time after time, breaking the boundaries of our privacy to get the best story. Coming to our family home three days after the eruption to gain some inside information. Three days. We had no room to grieve in private."

Her older sister Mieke Elzer also said boundaries were crossed.

"It seemed throughout the tragedy that all the media ever wanted was a story. It did not appear that there was any duty of care towards our family."

Peter Elzer said his son was not a thrill seeker.

"His decision to attend the tour that day was one that was consciously made, putting his trust in those who promoted and carried out the tour, and those who were responsible for the final destination, Whakaari.

"That trust was unfounded, as they did not ensure his safety, and he paid the ultimate price."

Amelia Elzer said before last year's trial, she had tried to accept the tragedy as a natural disaster rather than placing blame.

That changed when she heard the sentencing, finding Whakaari Island Limited guilty of falling short of its health and safety obligations.

"Having learnt the truth behind the reason why my family lost my big brother and his beautiful partner has been a hard pill to swallow.

"Now, I kind of feel like a victim of negligence and sheer recklessness."

Worksafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi.

Earlier in the day, Worksafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald had told the Court the judge's ability to sentence was severely hampered by the defendants' financial situation - in particular, that of Whakaari Management Limited.

"WML has said it has no money or other assets, and does not offer any money by way of reparation," McDonald said.

Mieke Elzer said the ruling of last year's trial against Whakaari Management Limited made her feel the rage of a big sister.

"The thought that my little brother's death was preventable makes me question the intentions of the company, to think that it can own an active volcano and profit millions of dollars by letting increasing numbers of people walk on her, without properly taking the time to understand when and how she might erupt." she said.

She also had questions about the reparations.

"Hearing Whakaari Management Limited submissions this morning, has also made me question the intentions of the company in submitting that they have empty pockets in this time of tragedy."

She said no amount of money can bring her brother back, but called on the court to make amends another way.

"To know that this company and others who failed in their duties have not got away with their negligent conduct sends a message moving forward that one cannot merely profit from natural environments, there is a great responsibility that comes from our relationship with Earth.

"More meaningful than economic reparation, I think, would be a public acknowledgement of this sentiment."

Richard's mother Jeannie Bartram, was also present in the courtroom, but had her statement read aloud by a victim support person.

"My maternal grandfather was from New Zealand. I am truly heartbroken and so very sorry that New Zealand was not a safe place for my son to visit.

"It is my sincere wish going forward that lessons be learnt from Rick's tragic death."

The sentencing hearing continues today.

-Maia Ingoe/Stuff.

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Hugely Sad

Posted on 27-02-2024 08:17 | By Yadick

I understand this is huge. I understand the sadness of losing loved ones and my heart goes out to everyone including the brave rescuers and hospital staff at all levels.
However, the only prosecution should be heavy and directed squarely at the owners of the Island who chose to ignore the heightened level of greater risk and let their Island remain open for monetary gain over potential loss of multiple lives - exactly what tragically happened. They deemed it safe despite professional assessment.
At the end of the day, the visitors also knew they were going onto an active volcano and decided, themselves, to take the responsibility of that risk.
Everyone the world over knows an active volcano is immensely dangerous and the immense dangers getting up close to one brings. Levels 1 - ?, it doesn't matter, it's a live and active volcano - IMMENSELY DANGEROUS.

Can't pay.....

Posted on 27-02-2024 09:40 | By OG-2024

Firstly My condolences to all those affected by this tragedy, especially those who lost loved ones. My thanks to all those who risked everything to help those who survived as well as those who returned to look for those who were missing. Many heroes on the day, even if for some reason later they have been told off or punished, those who attended the immediate aftermath and did what little they could deserve to be recognised for their efforts!

I am ABSOLUTELY APPALLED to hear that those found guilty are now saying sorry I have no money and asking to simply be convicted and discharged.
MANY of New Zealand's Laws that have a monetary penalty for conviction ALSO have the option of INCARCERATION as well.
IMHO, you were found Guilty, negligent, failed to exercise due care.... WHY should you NOT be penalised as allowed for under the law


Posted on 27-02-2024 09:58 | By Helo1

In response to Yadick….sorry but incorrect, the responsibility squarely falls on worksafe and worksafe alone.
They were on the island auditing White Island Tours less than 6 mths prior the eruption, changed nothing.
End of story.

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