New Zealand volcano: Rescue pilot recounts traumatic scenes

People shrouded in ash and appeared to have been burned badly after the sudden eruption

Victims of New Zealand’s deadly volcanic eruption off White Island were covered in ash and appeared to have been badly burned, said a helicopter rescue pilot who flew them to hospital, as he recounted his experience on Tuesday.

"They were in a fairly serious condition," said James Tayler to Television New Zealand [TVNZ] network, who flew some victims from Whakatane, the coastal town nearest the eruption site, to hospitals in the cities of Auckland and Hamilton.

“They were pretty poorly . . . but covered in ash, looking quite badly burned,” said Mr Tayler, adding that the ash had obscured the details of injuries.

The pilot works with the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter emergency service, which joined the rescue effort. Whakatane, on the east coast of North Island, is the main base for tours to White Island, about 50 km (30 miles) away.


“Tired,” said Mr Tayler, when asked how he felt after the rescue effort. “And pleased we were able to do something to help. And sad for people who have been injured and lost.”

A paramedic with the same service who landed on White Island described having been unable to find survivors.

“The biggest hazard was the significant amount of dust still swirling in the air,” said Mr Tayler, adding that the helicopters had stayed ready to leave immediately.

“The main concern would’ve been for any follow-up eruptions.”

The eight people still unaccounted for after Monday’s eruption off the coast of North Island are probably dead, said police.

Tourists from Australia, Britain, China, Malaysia and the United States, as well as New Zealanders were among those missing and injured, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said.

No sign of life

Meanwhile, New Zealand police said on Tuesday they are opening a criminal investigation after the eruption that killed five people, injured more than 30 and left eight people missing, presumed dead.

Ms Ardern said reconnaissance flights showed no signs of life on White Island, as eyewitnesses detailed the horrific burns suffered by survivors, most of them tourists.

“The scale of this tragedy is devastating,” said Ms Ardern in parliament. “To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated.”

Police said 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption – 24 from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and the UK and one from Malaysia.

"I would strongly suggest that there is no one that has survived on the island," said police deputy commissioner John Tims of the eight people still missing.

Of the injured, at least 27 suffered greater than 71 per cent body surface burns, and some could succumb to their wounds, said Peter Watson, the government's chief medical officer.

Burns units across the South Pacific nation of 4.5 million are full to capacity, he added.

A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion. Other images showed the explosion that shot an ash plume some 3,658m into the air.

“It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island – those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption,” said Ms Ardern.

She also paid tribute to the pilots of four helicopters that landed on White Island in the aftermath of the eruption to bring out survivors.

Covered in grey ash

“In their immediate efforts to get people off the island, those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extremely dangerous circumstances . . . I suspect their own personal safety was the last thing on their minds.”

Since then, rescuers have been unable to access the island, which is covered in grey ash.

GNS Science, New Zealand’s geoscience agency, warned there was a 50-50 chance of another eruption in the coming 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit “steam and mud jetting”.

A New Zealand man, Geoff Hopkins, whose tour group was just leaving the island at the time of the eruption, said he helped pull critically injured survivors into a boat.

Mr Hopkins (50) who was given the tour as a birthday gift, said many of the survivors had run into the sea to escape the eruption.

“They were just so massively burnt,” he told the NZ Herald newspaper. “People were in shorts and T-shirts so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burnt.”

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said three Australians were feared to be among the confirmed fatalities, with 13 among the injured.

“I fear there is worse news to come,” said Mr Morrison.

Malaysia’s high commission in New Zealand said one Malaysian was among the dead.

Britain's high commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clark, confirmed that two British women were among the injured in hospital.

Russell Clark, an intensive care paramedic with a helicopter team, said the early scenes were overwhelming.

“Everything was just blanketed in ash,” he said. “It was quite an overwhelming feeling.”

Whakaari, as it is known in the Maori language, is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years, according to GeoNet.

About 70 per cent of the island is under the sea, making the volcanic structure the largest in New Zealand.

Eruption in 1914

Ray Cas, a professor emeritus at Monash University, said the island "has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years".

“Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter,” he said in comments published by the Australian Science Media Centre.

GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The volcano’s last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners. There was a short-lived eruption in April 2016.

Daily tours bring more than 10,000 visitors to the privately owned island every year.

Royal Caribbean confirmed late on Monday that several passengers on its 16-deck cruise liner, Ovation of the Seas, were on a day trip to the island but did not provide further information.

Janet Urey (61) a nurse from Richmond, Virginia, said her son Matthew (36) and his wife, Janet (32) were cruise passengers injured in the eruption while on their honeymoon.

“The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on. It was my son. He said, ‘mom . . . this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We’re at the hospital with severe burns.’”

Ms Urey said she was frustrated by the lack of information from the cruise ship he was on and from authorities.

“I have not heard a word from the cruise people,” she said. – Reuters