Survivor, family pleas as White Island eruption court cases begin

A total 22 people died when the White Island volcano erupted in December 2019/

A total 22 people died when the White Island volcano erupted in December 2019/ Photo: Twitter: Michael Schade

Karen Griffiths rushed from NSW to New Zealand as soon as she learned her son Jason had likely been caught up in the explosion on Whakaari White Island.

Jason, 33, had been on a cruise with eight friends, including Karla Mathews and Rick Elzer who were also on the island when it erupted on December 9, 2019.

But in the hours after news broke of the unfolding disaster, Karen and her husband Craig – who were at their Sawtell home, on the Mid-North Coast – had difficulty finding out if their son was safe.

“I saw it on the news and I just thought, ‘I hope it’s not Jason’,” she said.

Court proceedings against 13 parties, including three individuals, are expected to begin in the Auckland District Court on Friday, as WorkSafe New Zealand pursues charges over potential breaches.

While the names of the parties have not yet been released, two government agencies have been revealed to be among those facing charges, including GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency.

Ms Griffiths said her husband was on the phone to cruise operator Royal Caribbean trying to locate their son, when the line went dead.

“I ended up giving the phone call to Craig and I heard him saying, ‘What are you doing to look for Jason?’ and then they hung up on him,” she said.

“You don’t hang up on someone who’s trying to find their son, that’s just horrible.

“If it wasn’t for Jason’s friend Daniel, we wouldn’t have known anything.”

white island eruption

Karen Griffiths with her son Jason, months before he died following the White Island disaster. Photo: Supplied

She spent six hours by Jason’s side at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, before he died from injuries sustained in the blast.

A total of 22 people died and scores of others were injured, requiring painstaking treatments.

To date, the only compensation the Griffiths family has received is a refund of their son’s cruise ticket and access to free counselling.

“He loved everyone – he’d do anything for anyone,” Mrs Griffiths said.

“Everyone at his workplace at Woolworths at Toormina just loved him.

“If someone needed a hand with their computer he’d just go help them because he was good with that sort of stuff.

“He did not have a bad bone in his body.”

white island eruption

Craig and Karen Griffiths had trouble getting information on their son’s whereabouts. Photo: Supplied

The first of the proceedings are expected to be largely procedural ahead of full hearings in the coming months.

Mrs Griffiths said she was “not holding her breath” for answers but was glad it was underway.

“I just don’t want that island reopened at all,” she said.

“I want it to be closed down completely.

“If anyone wants to look at it, they should look at it from 1 kilometre away where they can see it, but nowhere close to where you can lose your life.

“That’s a memorial for the 22 people who lost their lives – don’t open it back up.”

Survivor shares long road to recovery

Among the survivors is Melbourne’s Stephanie Browitt, who was on Whakaari White Island with her father Paul and sister Krystal, who both later died.

Ms Browitt has shared her recovery journey on social media, thanking supporters for their encouragement.

“I am not going to allow my amputations to stop me from completing everyday tasks and more,” she said in a recent Instagram post.

“I have my goals set and once I achieve them I make a new one to reach.

“Nothing is going to get in my way.

“As mentioned previously, my hands were one of the worst burns The Alfred [hospital] had seen.

“They were burnt so deep that my tendons were exposed and amputating my whole hands were definitely on the table.

“How I went from point A to B, when it looks like such an impossible task, is honestly a miracle.

“What The Alfred team did to save my hands are a miracle, something I will always be grateful for.”


Topics: New Zealand
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