New Zealand volcano erupted unexpectedly; at least six dead and dozens injured
The volcanic island Whakaari/White Island in New Zealand's north-eastern Bay of Plenty region explosively erupted on 9 December 2019 at 14h11 NZDT. There were 47 people on or near the island at the time. Six people are confirmed dead, eight are missing, presumed dead whilst 34 were injured, seven critically. The death toll is expected rise as police said that "no signs of life have been seen at any point" by helicopters and rescue aircrafts flying over the Island. The ash plume rose to 3,66 kilometres into the air. Police efforts to monitor conditions on the island using a drone have been hampered by the wind. Many of the injured people were initially taken to Whakatane Hospital, where they were triaged and stabilised before being transferred to other hospitals. Whakatane Hospital, Tauranga Hospital and Waikato Hospital in Hamilton all activated their mass casualty plans. On 10 December, the Ministry of Health announced that the 25 people had been transferred to country's four burns units and all the units were at capacity. Some of the injured have burns to 90 percent of their bodies and a source said they may not survive the horrific injuries.
At 18h35 on 9 December 2019, media were told that it was still too dangerous for the emergency services to get onto the island to rescue people as it is covered in ash and volcanic material. Later the same day, officials declared that 47 people were on the island at the moment of the eruption: five were killed, 34 injured and rescued, while eight are missing and presumed dead. A passenger on a rescue boat stated that many of the injured were burnt, as many survivors had worn just T-shirts and shorts for the day.
The Trust Tairawhiti rescue helicopter was one of the many aircraft involved in the major operation to fly injured from the White Island eruption to hospital. The Tairawhiti chopper carried out two rescue flights. “Most of the rescue helicopters in the North Island were there, along with a couple of RNZAF choppers and a lot of fixed-wing medical planes,” Gisborne rescue helicopter base manager Doug Buchanan, said. “Along with the other rescue choppers we waited at Whakatane until the injured were brought ashore by boat from the island.” They took their off duty intensive care paramedic over with them and he assisted at the scene on shore in Whakatane. The Gisborne-based chopper’s first flight was to Waikato Hospital. “We flew a woman with severe burns to Waikato, with one of the Auckland rescue chopper doctors on board to assist with patient care,” Mr Buchanan said. “Our second flight was to Middlemore in Auckland with an injured man, also suffering from severe burns.”
The crew stayed in Tauranga overnight. “We rested up there overnight and flew back to Gisborne.” When the Gisborne machine made its first flight to Waikato, Buchanan said they had a clear view of White Island. “It had settled down by that stage, which was around two hours after the eruption. “It was just puffing away as it usually does. I was quite surprised. I had expected it would be more active.” He added that the helicopters that had flown back from the island, after rescuing trapped sightseers, were covered in volcanic dust.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said no signs of life had been detected despite a number of air sweeps over the island. Ardern paid tributes to chopper pilots who had landed on the island shortly after the explosion. “Those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extremely dangerous circumstances. I’m sure all of this house would wish to pay tribute to them."
GNS Science and the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre reported, “There is an extremely low likelihood of any ash impact to the mainland, but gas may be smelt depending on the prevailing wind direction. Our monitoring equipment is operating and we continue to closely monitor the situation on the island. We will be attempting to collect additional airborne gas (CO2 and SO2) data later this afternoon to aid in future prognosis of the volcano. The volcanic alert level remained at Level 3. The aviation colour code remained at Orange. GNS Science and the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre continue to closely monitor Whakaari/White Island for further signals.”
"Police are working closely with experts from GNS Science to get an understanding of the current environment on Whakaari / White Island and the likelihood of any further volcanic activity, as well as any risks posed to recovery teams by gases in the atmosphere.
A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand science agency GeoNet shows groups of people walking toward and away from the rim inside the crater, from which white vapour constantly billows, in the hour leading up to the eruption. At 14h00 the crater rim camera caught a group of people, tiny specks in relation to the vast volcano, right at the edge of the rim. At 14h10, just a minute before the eruption, the group is headed away from the rim, following a well-worn track across the crater.
The Whakaari/White Island owners have expressed their condolences to those affected by the eruption. The Trust, which owns the island, is managed by Whakaari Management Limited which comprises three directors who are also brothers: James Buttle, Andrew Buttle and Peter Buttle. Peter Buttle issued a statement saying his family had owned the island for over 80 years and are devastated by the tragic event.
Just last week, GeoNet volcanologist Brad Scott said in a report that moderate volcanic unrest continued at White Island, with substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake.
The White Island volcano’s last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners. There was a short-lived eruption in April 2016.
White Island became a private scenic reserve in 1953 and daily tours allow more than 10 000 people to visit the volcano every year.
‘Whakaari’, as it is known in Maori, 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 percent is under the sea, making the massive volcanic structure the largest in New Zealand.
Authorities said in a press conference on Tuesday that 31 people were being treated for burns, including 27 who had burns on at least 30 percent of their bodies. Police say they were still working to confirm the identities of those who have died and who were injured. “The nature of the injuries that people have suffered is severe and means identifying them is a complex matter,” police said.
Authorities were continuing the recovery operation on the island and would deploy drones in order to determine gas levels in the atmosphere. Windy conditions on the island prevented drones from being deployed earlier in the day.
Police say they expected more bodies to be discovered once the rescue operation was able to be carried out. “We understand people's desire to recover their loved ones and we are working around the clock to get onto the island so we can recover them as soon as possible,” police said. “Based on the effects of the eruption on the bodies, this recovery will need to be handled with expert skill and care. It is important that we consider the health and safety of those who are going to rescue those on the island.”
New Zealand's National Emergency Management Agency said that the immediate vicinity of the volcano remains hazardous. A no-fly zone has been established above the island.
Police released the nationalities of 47 people who were on the island when the volcano erupted, which included 24 Australians, two Chinese nationals, four Germans, one Malaysian national, five New Zealanders, two people from the UK and nine people from the US.
Police added that it was too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation on the circumstances which allowed large numbers of people to visit the volcano before its eruption.
Sources: Insider, The Guardian, The Sun, The National Post, Otago Daily Times