December 16, 2019 18:00:35
First responders have spoken about the scenes they faced when arriving at New Zealand’s deadly White Island volcano eruption that injured dozens and killed at least six.
- Five people have died, including three Australians, after the volcano erupted yesterday afternoon
- Eight other people, all Australians, are still missing
- Rescue efforts have been compromised by bad weather and dangerous conditions
Helicopter pilots who flew to the island battled thick smoke, dust and volatile conditions in an attempt to save lives.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told local media that two privately owned helicopters, along with one from the Westpac Rescue service and another owned by scenic flight company Volcanic Air, flew to the island after the eruption to rescue survivors.
One helicopter pilot, James Tayler, said the patients he transported to hospital were in serious conditions.
“They were pretty poorly, obviously difficult to see specific details but covered in ash, looking quite badly burnt,” he said.
“Obviously, requiring transport by helicopter meant they were very sick anyway so they were in a fairly serious condition.”
Mr Tayler said dust in the air and the potential for follow-up eruptions were of major concern for pilots.
“They were obviously aware that there had been a single significant event and still quite a lot of steam and smoke coming from the volcano so there would’ve been concern if something else had happened,” he said.
“They discussed that and were ready to depart very quickly if they needed to.
“They would’ve been ready for immediate departure if anything went wrong and they planned their approach to come from the upwind side so any smoke or debris was blowing away.”
Intensive care paramedic Russell Clarke travelled to the island to assist with the rescue efforts soon after the eruption occurred.
“We were already hearing reports over the ambulance radio that there were multiple patients on boats already,” he said.
“We were getting status updates so we knew there were high-acuity patients, very, very critical patients. But in the back of our mind, we could see a massive plume coming from the island.”
Mr Clarke said he did not find any survivors on the island.
“So we got there, it was quite an experience. It was like… like I’ve seen the Chernobyl miniseries and it was just… everything was just blanketed [in] ash,” he said.
“There was a helicopter on the island that had obviously been there at the time, with its rotor blades off. It’s quite a shocking experience I suppose but we have to try and put that to one side for now and get on with what we’re doing.”
Philips Search and Rescue Trust, which oversees the operation of New Zealand’s rescue helicopters including the Westpac Air Ambulance, said crews worked tirelessly transporting and stabilising critically injured patients.
In a statement, the Trust said their crews assisted in the rescue of teenage and adult patients, many of whom suffered serious burns.
“Through this tragedy, we are grateful to have onboard the high-level medical skills of our own advanced intensive care paramedics: their ability to treat the seriously injured is often pivotal for stable transfers by our accomplished pilots and crew,” Philips Search and Rescue Trust chief executive David Wickham said.
Paramedics Australasia New Zealand chair Mitch Mullooly released a statement on social media encouraging paramedics to reach out and seek help if they are struggling to process the natural disaster.
“The Committee of Paramedics Australasia would like to convey our sincere condolences to the families of those who have been injured or have tragically lost their lives in this devastating event,” Mr Mullooly said.
“To all our colleagues, thank you for the amazing work you have done and continue to do, our thoughts are with you at this very sad time and we ask that you remember to look after yourselves and your loved ones first and foremost.”
What are the next steps?
Rescue attempts overnight Monday and into Tuesday were hindered by dangerous conditions.
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said drones had been tasked to carry specialised equipment to the island, launched from a boat stationed 1 kilometre from the shore, but strong winds were hampering the process.
“We are taking advice from the best scientific experts, including GNS Science, who are considering three aspects of the recovery operation,” he said.
“Firstly, the condition of the island, secondly, the requirements for those going onto the island, what they will need and thirdly, the care and transportation of the deceased when they are recovered.
“We understand the desire from the locals and the loved ones to remove their family from the island. But we are working around the clock, we’re working hard, and we understand what we need to do for friends and family.”
Deputy Commissioner Tims said the bodies of those who have been confirmed dead were covered in ash, and that it’s unlikely the eight people that are unaccounted for will be found alive.
“The five deceased have been transported to Auckland where a post-mortem will be carried out,” he said.
“There are approximately eight people missing and presumed deceased.”
The New Zealand Defence Force are assisting police with the drone work, and have also contributed a number of assets to the rescue efforts.
“A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft has flown over White Island carrying out surveillance over the area, and two NH90 helicopters have flown to Whakatane to assist,” a defence force statement confirmed yesterday.
“Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Wellington is transiting from Auckland to Whakatane to offer support.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern praised the helicopter pilots and crew for their bravery.
“I want to acknowledge the courageous decision made by first responders and those pilots who, in an immediate rescue effort, made an incredibly brave decision, under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances, in an attempt to get people out,” she said.
“As a result of their efforts, a number of people were rescued from the island.
“I do want to acknowledge the enormous and extraordinary work that’s gone on through the night to bring as much information as possible to everyone [Tuesday] morning.”
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December 10, 2019 16:25:19
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