Relatives of Ovation of the Seas passengers who died while visiting an active volcano in New Zealand in 2019 are pursuing legal action against the Royal Caribbean cruise line.
In an ABC investigation to be broadcast on Four Corners on Monday night, passengers share their stories of the chaos and disorganisation in the aftermath of the White Island eruption on December 9 that killed 21 people (19 were passengers on the ship) and left dozens badly injured.
Sydney law firm Stacks Goudkamp has been hired by passengers and family members to pursue legal action in Australia against cruise operator Royal Caribbean for alleged negligence, breach of contract, and breach of Australian consumer law.
“It was completely preventable. It shouldn’t have happened,” lawyer Rita Yousef tells Four Corners.
“It’s had an amazingly horrific impact. People have lost loved ones. They had to witness them in hospital having been completely burnt, being completely unrecognisable from their horrific burns, and people are having to somehow pick up the pieces,” she said.
The tourists booked and paid for their trip to White island through Royal Caribbean. A brochure promised visitors it was a way of getting “close to the drama”.
“They were told in the brochure that all they needed to do if they were attending this tour was to wear enclosed shoes,” Ms Yousef said.
She said Royal Caribbean told passengers on the Ovation of the Seas “absolutely nothing” about the possibility or risks of an eruption.
“At the very least, Royal Caribbean, which held itself out to be responsible for this tour, should have been monitoring this, and communicating with participants as to the risk, and giving them the choice, an informed choice to decide not to go because of this risk,” she said.
“But what appears [to have] happened is that nobody [at Royal Caribbean] was monitoring or taking this level seriously.”
The program also interviewed Graham Leonard, from GNS Science, who said warnings were not heeded after a 2016 eruption. If people had been on the island during that explosion, they would have been unlikely to survive, he said.
38 passengers on the island when volcano erupted
White Island Tours took 38 cruise ship passengers to the island in 2019, while passengers on another tour boat, the Phoenix, were offshore when they saw the volcano explode.
Geoff Hopkins, who was on the Phoenix with his daughter Lillani, told Four Corners:
“The cloud that was going up had obscured the sun so we were in the shadow of it. It went dark. It went very, very sinister quite quickly,” he said.
Ms Hopkins described the horrific injuries some people sustained, including one local tour guide: “She had severe burns to her hands, her arms, her legs, due to her clothing.”
“Then the most severe burns were ones that had no skin left. It just kind of dripped off them like wax,” she said.
Brazilian tourist Aline Kauffmann told Four Corners she helped to treat people who had been covered in ash.
“We started to help them to clean that ash, and they were feeling pain, much pain. Some people were quiet, very quiet, some people were screaming, some people were crying,” she said.
Volcanic Air pilot Tim Barrow told the program the air was filled with dust, ash and gas.
“I don’t know how to describe it. Apocalyptic, was probably the most apt description,” he said.
New Zealand has a no-fault accident compensation scheme that means people affected by the tragedy can’t sue.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean said since the eruption the company has “focused on providing care and support to passengers, their families and crew that were impacted by this event”.
“The details of the tour are the subject of two separate investigations in New Zealand, which we will be fully cooperating with, and we are unable to provide further details at this time.”