In 1936, George Buttle wrote a number on a piece of paper and bought White Island. Now his grandsons give evidence (2023)

For the first time, the criminal trial into the Whakaari White Island disaster has heard evidence from the three brothers who own the volcano.

The court has also heard the story about how a deal done in 1936 saw New Zealand's most active volcano become a private asset passed down through generations of the Buttle family.

Nearly a year after the deadly eruption, Peter, Andrew and James Buttle were interviewed by Worksafe NZ investigators about their ownership and operation of Whakaari and the events leading up to the disaster that killed 22 people.

Seventeen Australians died in the eruption.

An audio recording of the Buttle brothers'police interview has been played to the court over the past three days.

In it, they explain that while they had a long-standing relationship with New Zealand's volcano monitor GNS Science, the nature of Whakaari meant they "never knew from one day to the next essentially what the status of the island was".

Asked what steps they took to fully understand the danger posed by the island, Peter Buttle said he and his brothers held "institutional knowledge" gained over more than 40 years of the Buttle family communicating with New Zealand's volcano monitor.

Andrew Buttle told investigators there was "nothing on a day-to-day basis that we could really contribute" to analysing the risk.

"I mean it's a unique situation because it's an island off the coast.There's no permanent resident there, there's no tenant... we all reside in Auckland," he said.


The brothers said their understanding of the risks of Whakaari were "as presented by GNS".

"They [were] monitoring it 24 hours, they were talking with the operators, and getting their feedback on what was going on the island on a daily basis, so they were our conduit if you like to the information about what was and wasn’t safe around the island," Peter Buttle said.

"Things would happen on the island, [such as]there might be a minor ash fall overnight, there may be more activity from one fumarole than another at any particular time, and so it was a dynamic environment," he said.

"It relied on the people who were there and actively being on the island and observing the island to be able to assess what was going on and …they relied on that communication between them too to make those assessments."

When the prosecution opened its case, the court heard that the Buttle family had not formally engaged GNS Science to conduct an expert risk assessment.

The focus on risk assessments

Over the course of several witnesses, the prosecution has spent a long time explaining the process of an expert risk assessment to the court.

They are specialised bodies of work that can be done by GNS Science for a fee.

In her opening address, prosecutor Kristy McDonald told the courtan expert risk assessment into the danger of allowing tours on New Zealand's most active volcano was not commissioned by either the volcano's owners or tour operators.

Other volcanoes in New Zealand are owned by the Crown and are managed by the Department of Conservation, but Whakaari has been in the Buttle family as a private asset for nearly 90 years.

Earlier in the trial, GNS Science volcanologist Gill Jolly told the court about a commercial arrangement the research institute had withthe Department of Conservation to understand the ongoing risks of some active volcanoes.

Dr Jolly said an expert risk assessment done for the department after an eruption of Te Maari, which is in a national park, cost in"the order of a few tens of thousandsof dollars".

Asked by the prosecution if GNS Science had "any contractual or statutory role to provide risk advice to Whakaari Management Limited,the Buttles or tour operators", Dr Jolly replied "no".

"There's nothing contractually or under the legislation … that requires us to do that," she said.

In the interview played to court, the Buttle brothers were asked if they have a formal arrangement with GNS Science to understand the air quality hazard on Whakaari.

"Well not a formal arrangement in the sense, but it’s the arrangement that developed over 40 years of contact with them and knowing …they loved White Island," Peter Buttle said.

"It was a fantastic test case for them and they were doing as much research I think as they possibly could within the constraints of their budget."

Asked if that research was always passed to their company Whakaari Management Limited, Peter Buttle responded: "Not specifically."

"We saw the outcome of quite a bit of their research but it was …scientific research and we don’t have the capacity to understand the outcomes if they’re talking about chemicals in the air or whatever.

"What we did believe is that they would be communicating with the [tour] operators about what the effects of those chemicals or the composition would be if they needed to."

Prosecution alleges risk of White Island not understood

The three brothers who inherited the island are among 13 partiescharged with breaches of New Zealand's workplace health and safety laws for allegedly not doing enough to understand and manage the risks to tourists and other people on the island.

The three Buttle brothers, their company Whakaari Management Limited and nine other entities, including tour operators and GNS Science itself have all been defendants.

It is the position of the prosecution that there was a duty on every defendantto understand andmanage the risk of allowing tours on the island.

GNS Science was successful in having charges against the institute reduced and then pleaded guilty to those that related to the safety of their own scientists when visiting the volcano.

The trial has heard extensive evidence from volcanologists and experts in workplace health and safety about how to understand the risk and the different ways tourists and other visitors to Whakaari could have been protected in the event of an eruption.

Witnesses have given expert testimony on how detailed expert risk assessments are undertaken and the probability of death when visiting Whakaari based on known factors.

Survivors of the eruption have told the court they did not understand the risk when making the decision to visit Whakaari.

World-renowned volcanologist Stephen Sparks told the court tours to the island presented a one in 20 chance of a "mass casualty event".

The court has heard previously that it is the position of the Buttles that responsibilities around the expert risk assessment and mitigation factors fell to the touroperators, not them as the owners of the land.

Their defence lawyer James Cairney has repeatedly told the court the Buttles themselves did not bring anyone to the island. But the trial has heard that they did make a commission for every tourist that visited their volcano.

'I thought it would be nice to own a volcano'

In 1936, George Buttle wrote a number on a piece of paper and bought White Island. Now his grandsons give evidence (1)

On Friday, a statement from Peter Buttle explaining how Whakaari came into the Buttle family was read to the court.

"The family first got involved with White Island through my grandfather, George Raymond Buttle. He was a sharebroker and he was involved in the island when the island was being used by the White Island Products Limited to mine the island for sulphur," the statement said.

"That company went into liquidation in the early 1930s. Part of theliquidation was that they put all of their assets up for sale and one of the assets was the island.

"The island was put up for tender and our understanding is the original winning tender for the island was an Australian company.

"They didn't complete the tender and so it was re-tendered and the story goes that my [grand]father was walking down the street and the lawyer who was handling the tender came out and said 'hi Ray, have you got any interest in buying the island?'and he said 'oh yes'.

"And then the lawyer said 'well put a figure on a piece of paper and give it to me' and he did.

"The lawyer walked away back into his office and five minutes later, came out and said 'you own an island'. So it's quite an interesting way to end up owning anisland.

"People say, 'why did you buy it?' And he just said 'Oh I thought it would be nice to own a volcano'."

In the statement, Peter Buttle said that three yearsbefore his grandfather died, Whakaari was passed down a generation to his father.

"My father owned it up until his death. My father had a love for the island, I guess you could say, and a deep connection with the island," the statement read.

"He took us out when we were young.

"In those days, you just walked up onto the island and walked up the crater without any real awareness of the risk that you were taking."

The court has previously heard that before George Raymond Buttle owned Whakaari, there had been an eruption that killed at least 10 miners who were on the island at the time.

That was 1914. It was more than 100 years later on December 9, 2019 that 47 people were on Whakaari when it moved beyond its level two alert warning to a full-scale volcanic eruption.

Reliance on GNS Science

Over the six hours of questioning by Worksafe NZ investigators, the Buttle brothers repeatedly reference the long-running relationship thefamily had with GNS Science.

They repeatedly said they had confidence the companies running tours to the island — the tour operators — were receiving communications from GNS Science.

"Our concern was that the operators themselves were talking with the people who did know what, what the situation was," Peter Buttle said.

"And as we’ve said, GNS used the operators themselves to inform their decision-making about what was happening at the island.

"Our fundamental belief isthat if GNS were unhappy with the decisions being taken, they would certainly have elevated it, not only to us, but to Emergency Management Bay of Plenty."

In 1936, George Buttle wrote a number on a piece of paper and bought White Island. Now his grandsons give evidence (2)

James Buttle said there had never been any complaints about the conduct of the tour operators.

"We have never had any indication of complaints or criticisms or comments about the poor performance or unsafe operations of our operators," he said.

"That the standards that they have set being, to us, almost exemplary examples of running a tourism business and so when there were issues they got raised, they were addressed, then there was action taken and this happened informally if necessary."

In the statement read to the court, Peter Buttle said there had been times when tour operators "had turned back and said 'no, it doesn't look safe'".

"Back in 2013, Emergency Management Bay of Plenty gave us a presentation where they brought along GNS, and highlighted their approach to managing that hazard from their perspective, and said: 'Well as government we can shut you down if we feel it's not safe'."

"It's a fascinating environment, and it's also a potentially dangerous one.

"I guess on the adventure tourism side of things, it's not an adventure unless there's some risk."

Defence highlights role of government, emergency agency

The final witness for the prosecution, Worksafe NZ officer Casey Broad, began giving evidence on Friday.

Defence lawyer for the Buttle family Mr Cairney questioned him on the role government, and Worksafe NZ itself, had to play in oversight of the tours being run on Whakaari White Island and the understanding of the risk.

New Zealand has a network of local Civil Defence groups that operate as part of the broader National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

Mr Cairney referenced a document that made note of several ways the local Civil Defence Emergency Management group could restrict access to White Island when "it considers that the risk to visiting the island is too high".

"The first and preferred option is to come to a mutual agreement with tour operators," the document reads.

It notes the second option as "engaging with the island owners".

Mr Cairney also referenced a WhatsApp message authored by a NEMA duty officer from the day Whakaari White Island's volcanic alert level was raised to level two, which is one level below an eruption.

It is dated November 18, 2019 — three weeks before the fatal eruption.

"Team, I spoke to the GNS volcanologist re White Island, he believes the increase in activity is very small and there is no higher risk for people visiting the island, no action needed at this stage, thanks, duty officer," the message which was read to the court said.

'I don't know how to put it into words'

In 1936, George Buttle wrote a number on a piece of paper and bought White Island. Now his grandsons give evidence (3)

It is the position of the prosecution that Whakaari White Island was the location of commercial operations off which the Buttle family made revenue through their company Whakaari Management Limited, and that the Act does not allow them to pass their duty of care to other entities.

Asked if they believeWhakaari Management Limited owes a duty to the victims of the eruption of December 9, 2019, Peter Buttle said: "It's an incredibly hard question to answer."

"Because the scale of it was so horrific and it's had such a wide impact on thepeople who died and survivors and their families that it's just unimaginable and to know how to respond to that … I don't know how to put it into words." he said.

"There is no way you can respond sensibly to the scale of that disaster."

At the end of Peter Buttle's statement read in court, he said: "The family overall, that's my brothers and my mother, are devastated that these people have been hurt and injured on what was our island.

"And while we go through all the inquiries, we just can't forget the people that were killed and the people that going to suffer lifetime injuries."

The trial continues on Monday when Mr Broad's evidence will continue.

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