White Island: Burns unit performs a year's worth of work in a day

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 10 Dec 2019, 9:16AM

White Island: Burns unit performs a year's worth of work in a day

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 10 Dec 2019, 9:16AM

• Five confirmed dead, eight missing, 31 in hospital after White Island volcano erupts twice
• Police now say "to correct an earlier statement, it is too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation."
• There were 47 people in total on the island, 38 of them were from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas
• Thirty-four injured people and five bodies were taken off the island by heroic rescuers in the face of extreme danger, says PM
• Police say there are no further signs of life on the island, following flyovers late on Monday
• Many of the victims are tourists from Australia, the UK, China, Malaysia and the US

Police have stepped back from their position that a criminal investigation has been launched into the circumstances behind the White Island eruption which left five dead, eight missing and dozens badly injured.

In a press statement just before 7pm, police said "to correct an earlier statement, it is too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation."

Police confirmed they are investigating the death of individuals on Whakaari/White Island on behalf of the coroner, in parallel with a WorkSafe New Zealand investigation.

"WorkSafe New Zealand has opened a health and safety investigation into the harm and loss of life caused by the eruption," police said.

"As the workplace health and safety regulator and administrator of the Adventure Activities Regulations, WorkSafe will be investigating and considering all of the relevant work health and safety issues surrounding this tragic event."

The announcement comes as attempts to recover the eight people on the island who are missing, presumed dead and likely to be covered in ash.

Tims said a boat had been sent to the island today to try and launch a drone but it was too windy. A second attempt will be made later today if conditions allow.

The drone will capture the gasses which will be analysed and then the safety of the island will be seen from that.

Tims answered a question about a picture of the island that had markings about where bodies could potentially be.

The bodies of the dead are "certainly" covered in ash, Tims said.

When asked how confident he was that they could recover the bodies from the island, Tims said: "We're doing everything we possibly can. We know the importance of recovering the bodies to the families and friends, so we're working really hard in that space."

Experts have warned there is a 50 per cent chance of another eruption within 24 hours.

In the interim police are continuing to work with experts on three key aspects of the recovery operation: the condition of the island, the requirements of those who will go to the island and the care and recovery of the dead.

Five people have been confirmed dead and 31 injured - 25 of who are now in four regional burns units around the country. Another six will be transferred to burns units as soon as possible.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Pete Watson said all burns units are now at capacity and some of the Australian patients who are well enough to travel will likely be transferred to Australian hospitals where they can be closer to family.

Twenty-seven of the 31 injured have suffered burns to more than 30 per cent of their body and many have inhalation burns that require airways support.

Watson said Middlemore's burns unit has received the equivalent of a years’ worth of work in one day following the eruption.

A total of 47 people were on the island when it erupted at 2.11pm on Monday, sending an ash plume 12,000ft into the air. They were aged between 13 and 72 and most and 38 were tourists from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, which was docked in Tauranga.

Experts say many of the White Island victims may have been knocked out almost instantly by toxic gases.

An image posted to Instagram showing the helicopter that was destroyed during the White Island volcanic eruption. Photo / Supplied

An image posted to Instagram showing the helicopter that was destroyed during the White Island volcanic eruption. Photo / Supplied

The tragedy has rocked the local community and made global headlines as terrifying tales of the dramatic incident have emerged.

Tourist Michael Schade was on a boat near the island when it erupted. He told the Guardian the skipper of the boat had put on speed to get away from the volcano, but after the smoke cleared they could see a crowd of people and decided to return.

He said some of the tourists were screaming and others were in shock.

"Some people had pockets of burns, other people were fine, and others were really rough," he told the Guardian.

Hamilton man Geoff Hopkins, 50, provided first aid to some of the critically injured, describing how people were "horrifically burnt" with some drifting in and out of consciousness as he tried to tell them everything was alright.

"They were just so massively burnt."

He said that after visiting the island, his group had moved by boat to get one last look at the crater when the eruption commenced.

"There was just this gasp across the boat and I looked up.

"I could just see this plume of white and grey rising quite high and quite quickly," Hopkins told the Herald.

And yet, it was silent.

"At that moment, it was quite beautiful - we were watching a volcano erupt in front of our very eyes.

"But then the ash just rolled up over the rock face and as it rolled over, it just suddenly became quite menacing."

Hopkins saw people running into the sea to escape the eruption and the crew then rushed to pull people from the water.

Boatload after boatload of survivors was then pulled onto his boat. Cold water was poured over victims' peeling skin and singed clothing cut away as they made their way back to shore.


Thirty-four injured people and five bodies were whisked off the volcano in the aftermath of the eruption by rescuers who are today being labelled heroes.

Eight others remain unaccounted for and police say there are "no signs of life" on the island during flyovers this morning.

They believe anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of Monday's evacuation.

The tragedy has rocked the local community and made global headlines.

"The Police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter and NZDF aircraft have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption," police said in a statement early Tuesday.

"No signs of life have been seen at any point.

"Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last night: "We must prepare for some difficult news in the days ahead."

Police are working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already, the statement said.

"As part of the recovery a NZDF ship will approach the perimeter of the island at first light to deploy drones and observational equipment to further assess the environment.

"Police continue to receive information and advice from GeoNet experts to support the recovery operation.

"The Police Disaster Identification (DVI) team are assembling in Whakatāne to await deployment.

"Both New Zealanders and overseas tourists are believed to involved, and a number were from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship (berthed in Tauranga).

"The police 105 number can be used by members of the public to submit information regarding friends or family who might have been visiting White Island during the eruption.

"People from overseas can call +64 9105 105.

"They can also use the online form at the police website.

"At the request of New Zealand Police, New Zealand Red Cross has activated the Family Links website for people wanting to register themselves as safe or register an inquiry about a loved one.

"If you are worried about a friend or family member following the White Island eruption, first contact them as you normally would.

"If you cannot make contact, you can register them through this website: https://familylinks.icrc.org/new-zealand/en/Pages/Home.aspx

"The friends and family of those involved remain at front of mind for Police.

"Support is being put in place and Police are working to provide them with information as it becomes available."

Former Whakatāne mayor Tony Bonne says one of the people killed was an experienced guide for White Island Tours - "a young energetic man who's lost his life".

White Island Tours' chairman Paul Quinn said the company was deeply saddened following the significant eruption.

"Devastation is an understatement. This is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been impacted."

He said the company was currently assisting police and Civil Defence with the official emergency response.

"We acknowledge the considerable efforts from police and Civil Defence and will continue to do whatever is necessary throughout the rescue operation."

"Our immediate focus is on supporting our staff, manuhiri and respective whānau, who have been significantly impacted and are showing immense strength and courage."

A number of the tourists on the island when the eruption happened were from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, berthed in Tauranga.

Police have not confirmed nationalities, but there are fears for up to 24 Australians and at least three Brits.

The five people dead are people who were taken off the island on Monday.

National Operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims told a press conference on Monday afternoon a number of people had burns.

He said further eruptions were possible.

Those dead are of a "range of nationalities", he said.

"The experts that we've spoken to have said it is unsafe for us to go on that island. The island is unstable ... the physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island. It is important that we consider the health and safety of those that will return to the island.

Tims told an earlier press conference on Monday: "At this stage it is too dangerous for police and rescue to go on to the island ... the island is currently covered in ash and volcanic material.

"We know the urgency to get back to [the] island."

Nine News Australia is reporting 24 Australian citizens were on White Island when it erupted.

Tims told an earlier press conference it was believed fewer than 50 people were on or near it at the time of the eruption.

There were a number of tourists on or around the island at the time, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at an earlier press conference.

"I know that there will be a huge amount of anxiety for those who had loved ones on the island at the time."

GNS is assessing the situation at the moment and is unsure if cameras on the island are still functioning.

Dr Ken Gledhill, from GNS, said: "It's not a particularly big eruption, almost like a throat-clearing eruption, and that's probably why material won't make it to the mainland".

Smoke from the eruption went around 12,000m in the air, he said.

He said it has quietened down, but added he could not be certain there would not be another eruption in the next 24 hours.

They do not believe that all of those injured by the eruption are from the cruise ship.

Earlier on Monday, police said: "While it was initially believed there were approximately 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption, we now believe there were fewer than 50."

"Some of those people have been transported to shore, however a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for."

Emotional families of those affected are gathering at Whakatane wharf. People covered in ash can be seen arriving for treatment after being transported from rescue helicopters.

"Of those transported to shore, at least one has been critically injured," police said.

"Emergency services are working to ensure the safety of everyone involved, including rescue staff."

Earlier the Prime Minister said about 100 people had been believed to on or near the island. Jacinda Arden addressed the eruption at her weekly post-Cabinet meeting.

"All our thoughts are with those affected at this stage," Ardern said.

Police were alerted of the eruption at 2.17pm, she said.

GNS says the eruption happened at 2.11pm and sent a plume of ash 12,000ft above the vent. Ash has covered the main crater floor and continues to fall on the island.

Images from the island just minutes earlier showed people walking close to the crater.

People can be seen inside the crater just before the eruption. Photo / GeoNet
People can be seen inside the crater just before the eruption. Photo / GeoNet

Port company chief executive Mark Cairns said he understood the majority of those injured in the eruption were from the ship.

Cairns said the cruise ship berthed on Monday morning and was due to depart last night, but its movements are now uncertain.

Passengers scheduled to visit White Island would have caught buses to Whakatane to join transport to the island, he said. Wealthy passengers could have travelled by helicopter.

The ship would not now be leaving Tauranga tonight, Cairns said.

A spokeswoman for the ship's owners, Royal Caribbean, said it was not certain whether any passengers from the ship were on White Island at the time of the eruption.

''We're not sure if our guests were involved. We're still gathering information at the moment.''

Reporter Katee Shanks, who is at Whakatane wharf, said there are emotional scenes as family have gathered and are waiting for news.

She said ambulances were arriving and boats were being moved off the wharf to accommodate the police liaison team.

A local boatie, who didn't want to be named, said he was on the water when the eruption hit and saw one of the White Island Tours boats was already heading into shore when Whakaari exploded.

The boat drove at high speed to get to the wharf and dropped off its passengers before heading back at speed towards the island.

A shelter was installed on the volcanic island in 2016 in case of an unexpected eruption like today's.

The 2.4 tonne shipping container has been placed by the Defence Force on an old mining site to provide a natural protective barrier. It's not yet clear whether the shelter was used today.

And a man whose Facebook profile says he works at White Island Tours, Calvin Kingi, has posted a photo of the island erupting, saying:

"White Island just erupted as we left, we have our work mates and a tour still on the island, I hope they [are] okay."

Kingi later said the boat he was on was returning to the island: "We have people in critical condition [to] help."

Tourism Bay of Plenty spokeswoman said Volcanic Helicopters and a boat have still not been accounted for.

Eruption on White Island today. Photo / Supplied
Eruption on White Island today. Photo / Supplied

Meanwhile, several rescue helicopters were on their way and an emergency operation centre has urgently been set up at Whakatane Hospital.

The eruption as seen from a GeoNet camera on the island.
The eruption as seen from a GeoNet camera on the island.

The National Emergency Management Agency has issued a national warning and is saying it's hazardous in the vicinity of the volcano after the "moderate" eruption.

Civil Defence is telling people to stay out of the designated restricted zones, where ashfall may be a problem, and is warning people who live close to the island to stay indoors.

Long term resident Maree Reeve said it was "possibly the worst eruption she had even seen from the island".

Massive plumes of smoke from Whakaari/White Island. Photo / via zurraspismo on Twitter
Massive plumes of smoke from Whakaari/White Island. Photo / via zurraspismo on Twitter

Dan Harvey was out fishing with some friends 40km/h away from the island when he saw dark smoke erupting from it before 2.15pm.

"I looked over and saw a burst of steam coming up. There was nothing above the island at that time. It was just clear blue sky. It was unusual to see it go from nothing to steam erupting out of it.

"It was almost like a mushroom cloud ... the steam was expanding and getting bigger.

"I knew it was odd because there was nothing above it. Often it's doing this small continuous release of steam. But it wasn't doing anything then all of a sudden this massive amount of cloud comes out."

Harvey said it's still erupting steam but it was nothing like it was when it first erupted.
He added that it happened so quickly and fast that if there were anyone on the island it wouldn't be good.

CEO of Tourism Bay of Plenty Kristin Dunne, said it was a "shocking" event.

"Our concern is for any visitors that have been on the island and how we can assist when they return to the mainland," she said.

The company is working closely with police and civil defence to establish more information, she said.

A volcanic eruption is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano, police said.

"Volcanic hazards may impact on and near the volcano. Ashfall may impact areas distant from the volcano. People should stay out of designated restricted zones.

"A no-fly zone has been established.

"People living in or near the affected ashfall areas should:

1. Be aware of the potential for ashfall. Consider staying indoors. Volcanic ash could be a health hazard, especially if you suffer from breathing difficulties.

2. When indoors, close all windows and doors to limit the entry of volcanic ash.

3. If caught in volcanic ashfalls: Wear a dust mask or use a cloth handkerchief over your nose and mouth; protect your eyes by wearing goggles. Wear eyeglasses, NOT contact lenses as fine ash will get under the lens.

4. Listen to the radio and/or TV for further assessment and updates.

5. Effects of a volcanic eruption can be experienced many kilometres from a volcano.