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Documents reveal the timeline of the White Island tragedy

Documents reveal the timeline of the White Island tragedy
February 26, 2020

With more than two months having passed since the volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island/ Whakaari, which has so far claimed the lives of 21 people, new information has emerged about how the situation unfolded.

Information revealed among documents released earlier this month to New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) under the Official Information Act by the Whakatāne District Council and Bay of Plenty Regional Council shows that White Island Tours, owned by Ngāti Awa Group Holdings Ltd, had 38 boat passengers and five crew on the island at 2.11pm on Monday 9th December, when the first eruption occurred, according to the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Emergency Management Group's first situation report.

The other people on the Island were the pilot of a private helicopter and three passengers.

That eruption created an ash plume of about 4,000 metres and there were further eruptions at 4.30pm and 5.49pm that afternoon.

The Whakatāne Emergency Operations Centre was activated about 3pm to respond.

According to the documents, one Westpac Rescue Helicopter, two Kāhu NZ helicopters and one from Volcanic Air, all landed on the island after the eruption to help survivors, most of whom had burns and respiratory injuries.

Others were triaged on White Island Tours’ boat Phoenix on its way to Whakatāne Wharf where a cordon and further triage and staging area was in place.

All known survivors were removed from the island within four hours of the eruption.

The first situation report at 5.15pm highlighted the need for a mortuary.

Bodies were initially kept at Willetts Funeral home but by 9pm a cool store was set up at Whakatāne Airport and "chiller units" were brought in from Tauranga.

A report at 4.20am on 10th December said 29 people, families and relatives of those affected from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship berthed in Tauranga, were coming on two buses and accommodation for them was being organised.

Limiting factors likely to affect the effectiveness of the emergency response included, according to the report, a "risk of passenger lists/numbers being 'leaked' to news sources and public prior to controller/police approval".

A plan made that day said "misinformation" about the number of people missing had been sent to media and another report said a Civil Defence liaison had been put on-board the cruise ship while ACC was distributing information for people affected.

The dead were taken to Auckland for body identification by New Zealand Police and Australian Police and for ease of access for families.

Police also took DNA from "mortal remains" and met the families of the dead at the airport.

On 10th December, New Zealand Police told a media conference a criminal investigation was being launched. Later that evening they issued a retraction statement saying it was "too early" to confirm an investigation.

On 15th December, Stuff quoted a health and safety respirator supplier saying WIT’s gas masks provided to visitors to the island gave inadequate protection from the toxic gasses emitted from the volcano. Health and safety lawyer Bridget Smith said the efficacy of the masks and hard-hats worn by tourists needed to be investigated.

The documents also revealed that an emergency management plan dealing with an eruption at White Island had not been finalised when the volcano erupted.

Of the 47 people on the island when it erupted, there were 25 females and 22 males from ages 14 to 72 years. Nationalities included five New Zealanders, 24 Australians, two from the United Kingdom, four Germans, nine Americans, two Chinese and one Malaysian/Australian.

With the death toll currently standing at 21, including two whose bodies have never been found, as of 3rd February, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health seven patients remain in hospital in New Zealand, one of whom is in a critical condition, while 13 patients have been transferred to Australia and five further patients have been transferred to their home countries.

Images: Tourists on White Island in April last year (top, Wikimedia commons/Kimberley Collins) and a woman photographs White Island just moments after it erupted on 9th December last year (below, Twitter: Michael Schade).

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