It was a beautiful day for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But when disaster struck at Whakaari/White Island, some of thepeople who were there didn't come home. Nikki Macdonald examines how the tragedy unfolded.
At 2.10pm the GNS Science webcam at Whakaari/White Island's crater rim snapsan ant-trail of tourists checking out New Zealand's most active volcano. One minute later, the ever-puffingcone, whose Mori name means the dramatic volcano, blowsits top. There are 47 tourists still on the island, but the world doesn't know that yet.
Near the pier wheretour passengers load and unload, a boat is waiting to leave, to return its day-trippers to Whakatne, 50km away.On board is a group who just 20 minutes earlier were in their hard hats and gas masks, doing that same regular loop to the crater's steamy yellow edge,offered as part of the standard 1hour inner-crater tour.
"No, no, no," a passenger cries out, as they watch the mushrooming cloud of white and black smoke and ash surge from the area they've just left. "Ca commence," a French tourist exclaims it's starting. "Go inside, go inside," a frantic voice calls out.
The beautiful silent shroud turns sinister, rolling across the island.At the pier, about 13 people huddle as the toxic tower rises above their heads. Ash-covered tourists run into the sea.
The Volcanic Air tour helicopter parked on the beach is shunted from its helipad, its rotors bent into spidery legs. That's 1.5 tonnes of metal, carried by the force of the explosion. Its four German passengers are down by the beach. Two passengers and the pilot escape serious harm by jumping into the water. The others suffer burns.
Theash cloud soars to more than 3600mfarenough to see fromsatellites.
Six weeks earlier, Stuff reportedthat the island's sulphurdioxide gas and volcanic tremorshad hit their highest levels since 2016,increasingthe possibility of an eruption. On November 18, GNS raised the volcano's alert level from one to two out of five advising that eruptions of steam, gas, mud and rocks could occur "with little or no warning".
GNS vulcanologist Geoff Kilgoursays rocks and minerals had been slowly clogging the geothermal vents, increasing the pressure, like blowing up a balloon. But like a balloon, you can't predict when it might burst.
White Island Tours' websitesays it operates through the various alert levels, but"there isalways a risk of eruptive activity".
At 2.17pm, police are alerted to the disaster.
Tourists who have just left Whakaari watch helplessly from a boat as ash consumes the island.
Tour guides in navy and white striped T-shirts take inflatables from the tour boat to rescue the ash-caked huddle on the pier. At least five rescuees are in critical condition their skin blistered beneath their clothes from severeburns.
University of Auckland vulcanologistProfessor Shane Croninsays the eruptionwould have released a"violent ejection" of hot blocks and ash, and formed'hurricane-like' currents ofwet ash and coarse particles radiating from the explosion vent. That, and a cloud of "pretty much every nasty gas you can think of".
"These can be deadly in terms of causing impact trauma, burns and respiratory problems," Cronin says.
Geoff and Lillani Hopkins were on the island minutes before the eruption, and helped tend horribly burnt patients on the boat ride back to Whakatne.
The boat crew plead for doctors there are two. Hamilton pastor Geoff Hopkins and his daughter Lillaniare first aiders and also offer to help.
Lillanitriages the patients attaching red, orange or green tags, to show those most at risk of dying. They cut off the victims' clothes, andreplacethem withtheir own to keep themwarm. They're burnt but cold; in shock, drifting in and out of consciousness. They pourwater on the burns. When the water runsout,Lillaniholds a screaming man's hand and sings.
The Hopkinsesare two of few Kiwis on the tour. Those caught in the blast came from all over the world Australia, Britain, Malaysia, the United States, China.Many came from cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which was docked for theday at Tauranga. Later that afternoon, its 4000-odd passengers listenas the captain announcesone of the ship's tour groups hasbeen caught in a volcanic eruption. He reads a list of passengers asked to report in. It's long. Cruisersanxiously checktheir phones.
At 2.30pm, GNS issues a volcanic alert bulletin, raising the alert level to 4, signifying amoderate volcanic eruption.
WHITE ISLAND FLIGHTS/SUPPLIED
Tourism operator White Island Flights captured this image of the Whakaari/White Island eruption.
Before the dust has settled, rescue efforts begin from the air, with Westpac rescue helicopters, two private helicopters and a Volcanic Air tourist helicopter scrambled to help.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern later paystribute to the courage of the pilots who selflessly headed into theeruption's aftermath.
One is pilot Mark Law, of Whakatne helicopter company Khu. He's been flying tourists to Whakaari/White Island for years. When he hearsof the eruption, he doesn'thesitate to fire up the rotors of his Squirrel and make the 20-minute flight to the island.
Crew from tour boats who were waiting to leave sent inflatables back to the island to rescue those caught in the eruption.
His colleague Jason Hill flies their second chopper. Inside the volcano's crater, the dust and gas are swirling, restricting visibility.
On the ground, they can see distressed people. Some sitting, some lying. Several have horrific injuries. They hear emergency services aren't coming, so they start rescuing patients themselves. The dust is so deep it's like running through talcum powder.
Volcanic Air chief pilot Tim Barrow arrives to help.Between them, they load up 12 patients and get them out, to Whakatne Hospital. They're struggling to breathe, and one of Barrow's charges dies on the way.
Mark Law was one of three commercial helicopter pilots who courageously flew to the island immediately after the eruption, to evacuate patients.
On board oneWestpachelicopter is Dr Tony Smith. He's St John's clinical director, but also works half time as an intensive care specialist for Auckland Hospital. They have a permanent rescue helicopter crew, and he happens to be the doctor on call.
When the call comes in around 2.30pm, information is sketchy. All they know is there'sbeen an eruption, with multiple casualties. As they flytoward the volcano, the scale of the disaster becomes clearer from information from the ground, but it also becomes visible from the air.
"Even before we went over the Coromandel Peninsula we could see the plume of smoke. It was clear that something big had happened."
AUCKLAND WESTPAC RESCUE HELICOPTER
St John clinical director Tony Smith (left) and a paramedic are seen on White Island after the eruption.
They circle over the crater, looking for a safe landing, checking for life. They find neither they can see people, but only those who haven't made it.
Safety is never black or white, always grey, Smith says. They put down on the beach, near the pier, where they figure the boats can fish them out if they have to flee to the water. Everything is covered in thick yellow sulphurous ash. Every wind gust or rotor swish kicks up a dust cloud. It's like walking around in fog.
They can smell the sulphur through the respirator masks. It's incredibly irritating within minutes eyes and any exposed skin are sore. There are no more survivors to save so they head out, back to Whakatne, where six critically injured evacuees are waiting at the airfield and wharf.
This 1.5 tonne tour helicopter was shunted off its helipad by the force of the eruption.
On Whakatne's coast, police cordon off Muriwai Drive, to give emergency services room and privacy to deal with the injured. Casualties are removed on stretchers, covered in survival blankets, some dressed only in their underwear. Manyhave life-threatening burns.
Whakatne Hospital goes into mass casualty response, handlingmore critical patients in 12 hours than it normally gets in 12 months. Five will not make it, but the country doesn't know that yet.
Patients are placed wherever there'sspace in the Emergency Department, in the wards, even in the operating theatres. They need stabilising. Some have lungs so burntthey need ventilators to breathe. Others need anaesthetic to deal with the pain. Medicssend out for catering packs of Gladwrap, to cover the weeping wounds.
Police cordoned off Whakatne's Muritai Drive, to give emergency crew room to receive the injured.
Of the 31 patients, 27 have burns to more than 30 per cent of their bodies the normal entry criterionfor the national burns unit at Auckland's Middlemore Hospital. They need to get out of tiny Whakatne Hospital, but Middlemore can't cope with everyone. Smith helps co-ordinate ambulances, helicopters and aircraft to fly the injured to the country's four burns units, at Hutt Hospital, Christchurch, Waikato and Middlemore, and the two next best options Auckland and Tauranga.
Some patients have burns to more than 50 per cent of their bodies. The skin is red and blistered, with pieces falling off. The deepest burns turn the skin white, thick and leathery. Medics will need 1.2 million square centimetres of donor skin to patch all the scorched bodies.
Looking around Whakatne ED, Smith is blown away by the scale of the task ahead.
The ash cloud soars to more than 3600m - far enough to see from satellites.
"In terms of numbers of patients with very severe injuries, andsubsequent impact on the healthcare system of New Zealand,this is by far and away the biggest event we have ever experienced. Patients with 50 per cent burns will occupy many many many tens of hours of surgical operating and operating theatre time, many weeks of intensive care. These are complex patients that require a lot of complex therapies to get them to survive."
At 3.30pm, theNational Emergency Management Agency issues a national warning for a moderate volcanic eruption, advising people living near the ashfall to close windows and wear a dust mask.
Tourists have been visiting Whakaari/White Island for more than 30 years. (File photo)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives a press conference saying 100 people are believed to have been on the island, and some are unaccounted for. Reports begin to filter to the public, of at least 20 injured, some critical, and possible deaths
At 4.25pm, GNS drops the volcano's alert level back to 3, warning of eruption hazards near the vent. Experts report there "remains significant uncertainty as to future changes but currently, there are no signs of escalation".
Police issue an update, saying only 50 tourists are now believed to have been on the island during the eruption.That's the only good news of the evening.
Just 90 minutes later, the police National Operation Commander, Deputy Commissioner John Tims, stands in the Beehive theatre and announces one of those rescued from the island has died. More deaths are likely, he says.
He doesn't know how many remain on the island, but it could be up to 27. And authorities have decided it's too dangerous for police and emergency services to go back in.
National Police Operation Commander, Deputy Commissioner John Tims, was the bearer of continual bad news.
Police confirm five people have died. Around the world, desperate friends and relatives begin to post missing persons reports on the Red Cross family links website. Theyare parents and children; husbands and wives; young and old.Their nationalities span the globe.
Some are false alarms a 7-year-old Australian boy is later found safe with family in Whakatne. Others are not.
Ardern and Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare arrive in Whakatne and head to Whakatne District Council for a briefing.
Two hours later, just after midnight, police deliver a critical blow to hope: nomoresearchand rescue will be attempted tonight, despite "double digit" numbers left on the island. A police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter and defence force planes have donerecces, butseen no sign of life.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives in Whakatne for a briefing on the situation on White Island on Monday night.
TUESDAY, 10 DECEMBER
Even as eight bodies lie unrecovered and unidentified in their ashen graveyard, the questions begin.
Local man Hayden Marshall-Inman is the first victim to be named one of two White Island Tours staff killed. As a tour guide for more than a decade, he knew the risks, his brother says.But he's angry that red tape is preventing them bringing his brother's body home.
"It smells like Pike River all over again.People from Wellington making decisions for people that go on the island daily who knows the island inside out."
As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmsup to threeof the five dead may be Australian, another 11 are unaccounted for and 13 have been hospitalised, the scale of the diplomatic disaster begins to crystallise.
The dead and injured come from seven countries two from Britain, four from Germany, 24 from Australia, five from New Zealand, two from China, one from Malaysia and nine from the United States.
Stories begin appearing on international media, of their countrymen and women caught in the tragedy. And with them come the question why were they allowed on an active volcano that was known to begetting jumpier?
Newly weds Lauren and Matt Urey were on White Island when it erupted. They were taken to hospital with burns. Their condition is unknown.
American honeymooners Lauren and Matthew Ureywere severely burntin the explosion. Lauren's mother Barbara Barham is livid had her daughter known it was risky, she would never have gone, she says.Lauren's father says allowing tourists on to an active volcano is "absurd".
Tourists have been trekking out to the island for more than 30 years, including through the volcano's most active period, from 1975 to 2001, when small eruptions were frequent. It has claimed lives before in 1914, a lahar killed 10sulphur miners asleep in their beds. The only survivor was a tabby cat.
Ray Cas, Australian professor of geoscience at Melbourne's Monash University, has said White Island was "a disaster waiting to happen".
Flowers and cards have started to be placed at the cordon site for White Island victims.
Whether tourists should have been there at all is a question that must be asked, Ardern later says. At 5pm, police announce they will be asking it, in addition tohealth and safety watchdog WorkSafe.
But for now the focus is on supporting grieving families, and the heroes who went in to help.One survivor will later die in hospital, on Tuesday night, bringing the death toll to eight.
"All incidents like this affect everybody," Tony Smith says. "You are a human being. It's impossible to go to something like this and not be affected ... This will be an incident which will be forever etched in our memories."
Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith