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Whakaari/White Island: The Police Response

The sudden eruption of Whakaari/White Island in 2019 resulted in the death of 22 people and ongoing pain and suffering for their families and the injured survivors. It was a tragedy the likes of which had not been seen before by those who responded. It presented challenges that required dedication, dignity and innovative solutions. The local police, DVI specialists and coronial investigators who rose to those challenges share their experiences. By Ellen Brook.

When staff at the Whakatāne Police Station got word on the afternoon of Monday, December 9, 2019, that Whakaari/White Island was erupting, many of them rushed to a vantage point on the station roof to see if it was visible. They could see a plume of ash.

Eruptions on Whakaari, the country’s most active volcano, which is 48 kilometres off the coastline, are not uncommon.

“At that point,” recalls Detective Simon Nolan, “we didn’t know there were people on the island.”

Moments later he was told to head to the wharf. Communications were patchy, but it appeared there were tourists, there were injuries and people were going to be brought to the wharf by boat. Little was known about their condition.

In consultation with St John staff, the harbourmaster, fire crews, the council and Civil Defence, local police formulated a plan. Simon’s task was to help identify the arrivals and cross-reference them with manifests from the White Island Tours company.

At that point, no one knew exactly who was on the island.

As the operation swung into action and the tour boats carrying the victims began arriving, the first responders at the wharf found themselves confronted with a tragedy the likes of which they had not encountered before.

There had been three tour boat groups and a helicopter group of five visiting the island that day. The first boat, the PJ4, was almost back at base when the eruption occurred at 2.11pm.

There were 47 people, including four tour guides, left on the island – 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and one Malaysian.

The Phoenix had just left the island with its group of sightseers, and the Te Puia Whakaari (TPW) was anchored off shore waiting for its group, all of whom were from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas berthed at Tauranga. It was a beautiful sunny calm day.

As the Phoenix motored away, those on board were shocked to see the land they had just been walking on totally obscured in a catastrophic blast of ash, smoke, steam and gas.

The Phoenix returned to the island, picking up a group of huddled and shellshocked people who had managed to make their way to the shore. They were helped on board and given first aid – water was poured on their burns and they were covered with anything that could be found, including people’s clothing – as the boat made the 70-minute journey to Whakatāne.

Detective Simon Nolan, who was tasked with helping identify those who came off the island on the day of the eruption, is also part of the ongoing coronial inquiry team.

The TPW, meanwhile, was smothered in ash and needed cleaning. As the crew worked to get it up and running, a young man appeared at the shore. Miraculously, he had walked out from near the crater, despite having severe injuries, and was the only member of his family to survive.

Charter boats and tour company helicopters were arriving at the island to assist and they rescued several survivors.

As the tour boats arrived back at the Whakatāne wharf, Simon recalls, it was difficult to tell the injured from the uninjured because everyone was covered in ash. Even passengers who were not on the island when it erupted were dazed and in shock.

The volume of victims coming in was becoming overwhelming. Ambulances were working on stabilising some, and helicopters were taking the severely injured to hospital.

“Most of the injured could say their names,” he says, but the identification process was hampered by the severe burns that made it difficult to place ID tags on people.

The damage to people’s bodies was so different from what Simon had been expecting. “I had imagined lava and rocks being kicked out from the crater. I thought there would be ‘ballistic’ injuries from flying rocks, or injuries from lava.”

In many cases, the burns were so bad it was difficult to touch or move the injured or to ID them. It was hectic and challenging. “The victims were covered in ash and there was an overpowering smell of sulphur.”

Constable Don Te Maipi and Senior Sergeant Helen Hay at the Whakatanē wharf where injured tourists arrived on December 9, 2019. Don helped with family liaison at the scene and Helen was one of the team managing the rescue operation. “In my years of policing, this is the one event that has affected me the most,” she says.

Later, after a debrief back at the station, Simon went to the Whakatāne Hospital to help with further identification amid the chaos of a valiant medical team under severe stress.

At the end of the long day, there were five confirmed deaths. It was the beginning of the aftermath of a tragedy that rippled across the world as wounded survivors succumbed to the irreparable damage to their bodies over the following days, weeks and months. The final death toll was 22.

The last person to die was a man that Simon remembers well. He had arrived at the dock on December 9 and seemed “strong and able to talk”. By the time Simon saw him again at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland he was too ill to be spoken to, but he was able to travel home to Germany, where he remained in hospital. He held on for seven months, until July 2, 2020.

Just about every member of the Whakatāne police who was working that day went to the wharf to help. It was personal for some as they knew the tour guides – two died and two were severely injured – and their families. Simon says they also wanted to ensure that the “best response possible was delivered for our injured visitors”.

Nearly all the survivors suffered terrible and unusual burn and inhalation injuries, and most have needed extensive and ongoing surgery.

Senior Sergeant Helen Hay, a Police Association rep in Whakatāne, was one of the officers controlling the rescue operation at the wharf and later at the Emergency Operations Centre at the council. “In my years of policing, this is the one event that has affected me the most.”

For a long time afterwards, she says, she couldn’t even bear to look at the island, always visible on the horizon on clear days.

Whakatāne Police Station OC Senior Sergeant Al Fenwick says the eruption and its consequences were circumstances that you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but he couldn’t be prouder of the way local police stepped up that day, going above and beyond, and the community as a whole.

“My main feeling, looking back, is pride in what we did that day, giving people what they needed under very traumatic circumstances. It was one of those days that makes you proud to be a cop, especially when you consider that what people saw there is going to stay with them forever.

“They have had counselling sessions, but there are some things you just can’t unsee.”

The scale of the human tragedy of the Whakaari eruption has rippled around the world, affecting families in many countries, and attracting the attention of global media. Streaming giant Netflix has recorded interviews with three Bay of Plenty police officers who were involved – District Commander Superintendent Andy McGregor and first responders Constable Jason Herring and Constable Renine Stansloski – for a documentary that is due to be released in 2023.

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