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3 helicopter tour operators plead guilty to lapses in deadly New Zealand volcano eruption

Steam rising above New Zealand's White Island following Dec. 9, 2019, volcanic eruption
Plumes of steam rise above New Zealand’s White Island following a Dec. 9, 2019, volcanic eruption.
(Mark Baker / Associated Press)
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Three helicopter tour operators pleaded guilty Friday to safety breaches when New Zealand’s White Island volcano erupted in 2019, claiming 22 lives.

Volcanic Air Safaris, Kahu NZ and Aerius had been scheduled to go on trial in Auckland District Court next week along with six other entities and people in connection with the tragedy at the island, which had been a popular tourist attraction.

There were 47 people on White Island, the tip of an undersea volcano also known by its Indigenous Maori name, Whakaari, when superheated steam erupted, leaving most of the 25 survivors with severe burns.

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Many people question why tourists were allowed to visit the island after experts monitoring seismic activity raised the volcano’s alert level two weeks before the eruption.

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The three helicopter operators admitted that they had failed to ensure the health and safety of staff and customers and will now appear in court in August instead of next week.

Many of those killed and injured were tourists who had been traveling from Australia aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. Of those killed, 14 were Australians, five were Americans, two were New Zealanders and one was a German.

The judge-only trial for the other six defendants is scheduled to start Monday and to take 16 weeks.

Each of the organizations faces a maximum fine of about $927,000. Each individual charged faces a maximum fine of about $185,000.

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