WHAKATANE, NEW ZEALAND – Tales of heroism, devastation and horrifying injuries emerged Tuesday after New Zealand’s smouldering White Island volcano exploded, killing an estimated 13 people and turning what should have been an intrepid day trip into a nightmare.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there were five confirmed fatalities and eight more people were presumed dead after Monday’s eruption, while dozens of injured had been airlifted to hospital burns units across the country.
Among the 47 people caught on the island during the sudden blast were tourists from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Germany and Malaysia, as well as local tour guides.
As relatives of the missing faced an agonising wait to discover the fate of their loved ones, police said conditions remained too dangerous for recovery teams to set foot on the volcano.
Amid questions about how tourists were allowed on the island, police said they were opening an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries — but they backtracked on suggestions it could lead to criminal charges.
Ardern praised the crews of four rescue helicopters for landing on the island soon after the eruption.
“Those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out,” she told reporters.
Intensive care paramedic Russell Clark was among those dispatched by helicopter to the volcano, which sits semisubmerged 50 kilometers (30 miles) out to sea.
He was confronted by an “overwhelming” and “shocking” scene of devastation.
“We didn’t find any survivors,” he told TVNZ, remembering a dust-covered helicopter grounded with its rotor blades damaged.
“It was like … I’ve seen the ‘Chernobyl’ miniseries and it was just everything was just blanketed in ash, I can only imagine what it was like for the people there at the time — they had nowhere to go and an absolutely terrible experience for them.”
New Zealander Geoff Hopkins’ tour boat was leaving the island when a huge plume burst from the volcano — at what scientists said was supersonic speed — followed by a “menacing” cloud of grey ash.
Despite the danger, Hopkins said the boat moved closer to the shore after seeing survivors jump from the island into the sea to escape.
“I don’t think there was anyone that came off who wasn’t badly burnt,” he told the New Zealand Herald, describing how victims screamed and went into shock as fellow tourists tried to tend to their blistered skin.
Top New Zealand health official Pete Watson said 27 of the 34 survivors were being treated for burns to more than 71 percent of their bodies.
“It’s important not to underestimate the gravity of the injuries suffered,” he said.
After an initial rush, concerns about further eruptions, poisonous gases and choking ash stalled efforts to recover bodies.
The risks were underscored Tuesday when a large-but-harmless 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck to the east of the disaster zone.
Ardern said New Zealanders were mourning alongside those from overseas whose nationals were caught up in the disaster.
“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief and in your sorrow,” the prime minister said, just months after managing another national crisis during Christchurch’s deadly twin mosque attacks.
Many of the victims are believed to be Australian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned his compatriots to brace for the worst.
He said there were fears that three of the five dead were Australian, and another eight citizens were unaccounted for.
“This is a very, very hard day for a lot of Australian families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy,” he told reporters in Sydney.
The Malaysian government said one of its citizens had died and two British women were confirmed among those injured.
With the island off-limits, Adelaide man Brian Dallow was anxiously awaiting news about his son Gavin, daughter-in-law Lisa, and her daughter Zoe Hosking, 15.
“All we know at the moment is they were on the island and they’re been confirmed as missing,” he said. “As far as we know they didn’t get back on the ship.”
The eruption at White Island — also known as Whakaari — occurred on Monday afternoon, spewing a thick plume of white ash 3.6 kilometers (12,000 feet) into the sky.
At the time, visitors included a group of more than 30 from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which left Sydney on a 12-day voyage last week.
The island in the picturesque Bay of Plenty attracts more than 17,000 visitors every year and is marketed as an experience for the adventurous traveler.
But the volcano’s threat level had been raised in recent days, leading to questions about whether tour groups should have been allowed to visit.
Geological hazard tracker GeoNet raised its alert level for the island near the middle of a six-point scale in mid-November because of an increase in volcanic activity. But tour companies were not required to keep their dozens of customers that day away from the volcano, operators and agencies say.
“I have to say that I’m very surprised to hear there were visitors there today, because scientists seem to have been well aware that White Island was entering a phase of heightened activity,” said Drexel University volcanologist Loyc Vanderkluysen. “I’ve been to White Island before, but I don’t think I would have been comfortable being there today.”
Local tourism authorities market White Island as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano.” The volcano attracts volcanologists and thrill-seekers from around the world to walk across the island’s wild landscape, which features active geothermal steam vents and bubbling mud pools.
The privately owned island runs daily tours, and more than 10,000 people to visit every year.
“The eruption was unfortunate but not completely unexpected,” said Jessica Johnson, lecturer in Geophysics at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. “The most that the scientists can do is continue to monitor the volcano and issue information when it is available.”
The regional government monitors the volcano’s activity through GeoNet and other agencies. Tour operators, which must have government permits to take people to the island, can shut down access based on that data, tour companies said.
“The safety instructions, the discussion before you go, makes it very clear to you that this is an active volcano, there are risks, when you get handed over gas masks, so the tour companies go to great lengths to make sure people do understand exactly what this is,” said Anne Tolley, local leader and Parliament member from the East Coast.
Experts said it was difficult to predict exactly when a volcano would erupt. New Zealand uses a scale of 0-5 to rank volcano eruption risk, with 0 being no activity and 5 being a large eruption. On Monday, White Island was level 2.
Although there are signs scientists can watch for, they are more of an indicator of risk rather than predictive tools, said Toshitsugu Fujii, Head of the Mount Fuji Research Institute in Yamanashi.
“With a steam explosion it can be hard to see the signals until right before it happens,” Fujii said. “It seems that the volcano was getting more active and they raised the alert level, so they were paying attention. But you can’t tell, even so, if it’ll erupt today, next week or next month.”
Paul Quinn, chairman of Ngati Awa Holdings, which owns White Island Tours, told Radio New Zealand that the alert levels over the last few weeks did not meet the company’s threshold for stopping operations.
He did not say what specific criteria the company considered, but said that at level 3 it would “liaise more directly” with the government about whether to continue tours.
Ardern acknowledged that tourism on White Island had been going on safely for decades.
“It has been a live volcano throughout that time and at various time has been level 2 but it is a very unpredictable volcano,” she said.
There are dozens of volcanoes across New Zealand. The country’s largest city, Auckland, sits on a volcanic field made up of about 50 volcanic cones and craters that have erupted over the past 250,000 years. Some get daily tours.
Mount Ruapehu on the central North Island has erupted several times in recent years but is still a major tourist attraction, with ski resorts on its slopes.
Injuries and deaths are rare for volcano tourism anywhere, data show. White Island’s last eruption was in 2016, but no one was affected. A volcano on the Italian tourism island of Stromboli killed one person when it erupted in July.
When Japan’s Mount Ontake erupted in a steam explosion September 2014, the peak was packed with hikers out on a weekend to admire autumn foliage. Fifty-eight people were killed in that eruption and five are considered missing, the highest toll for an eruption in 90 years. Japan constantly monitors 50 peaks.
Tristan Vine, a Whakatane businessman, said New Zealand’s volcano tours are a big draw and that many businesses in the town rely on them.
“There’s obviously plenty of other things to be done but White Island is built on the foundation of that. So it’s quite critical for the town,” Vine said.