On her first return to the seaside community and gateway to the Whakaari volcano since last year’s deadly eruption, Jacinda Ardern has made a tribute to locals and Australian families who lost loved ones in the blast.
The New Zealand prime minister visited Whakatane on Wednesday on the campaign trail to October 17’s election.
Unlike previous days, the visit had a sombre and reflective feel.
Ms Ardern met and shared morning tea with the first responders to the December 9 blast.
Of 47 people on the island during the eruption, 21 lost their lives – including 14 Australians.
“In the aftermath of Whakaari I received a lot of letters from those who had lost loved ones, particularly those who were overseas. Many of those came from our Australian friends,” Ms Ardern said.
“I was deeply moved by those letters.
“In a circumstance where it would be completely understandable to feel such pain and grief when you think of New Zealand and when you think of Whakatane, yet the opposite was true.
“Those letters often detail the close connection that they feel here to this place, and to all of you.
“And in some cases they even said that if they were to lose a loved one anywhere, this is the place that they would want to be safe and held and cared for.
“That in my mind has happened as a result of the way you responded.”
A number of inquiries – including a multi-million dollar WorkSafe probe – have been launched into the disaster.
That does not include a public investigation or royal commission, which Ms Ardern says would duplicate the work of WorkSafe and the police.
The WorkSafe probe is due to report prior to the anniversary in December, when Ms Ardern said she would be guided by locals on how best to commemorate it.