11 Dec 2019

Whakaari White Island eruption: Rescue pilot keen to go back

From Checkpoint, 5:42 pm on 11 December 2019

A pilot who flew critically-injured survivors off Whakaari White Island says he would go back immediately to collect those killed in the volcanic eruption, but it is not his call.

Volcanic Air pilot Tim Barrow flew to the island right after the volcano blew, along with two other crews from Kahu helicopters.

He helped find and ferry back sightseers caught in Monday's eruption.

One of Mr Barrow's fellow pilots was on the ground with four tourists at the time the volcano went up.

He told Checkpoint he headed straight for one of the landing pads in the crater.

"I could see the Kahu crew up in the middle of the crater. I raced up there and they pointed me in the direction of one of the survivors."

He managed to get the man standing and got him back to the helicopter.

"There wasn't a lot said, he was in a pretty bad way. He wasn't capable of communicating, just asking for water."

He returned to where the Kahu helicopter team were in the crater.

"There were some deceased bodies there and some survivors.

"Between the three helicopters we evacuated 12 people. We evacuated 11 from that site plus the one I had back on the platform with my aircraft."

It was hard to communicate with the survivors at the time, he said, with aircraft noise, and trying to talk through respirators.

"The conditions weren't particularly conducive to talking without a respirator on so we were communicating but it was muffled, and in terms of the passengers, they weren't in any real state to communicate."

The 12 survivors were conscious when they were airlifted off the island.

Eight people are unaccounted for, presumed dead. Mr Barrow said he thinks he knows where they are.

"Some of them were [in the crater], and then there were another couple of victims located further down towards the beach area."

The survivors were suffering burns and breathing difficulties, he said.

A damaged helicopter is seen on White Island after the eruption.

A damaged helicopter is seen on White Island after the eruption. Photo: Instagram/The Helicopter Page

The damaged helicopter covered in ash

Mr Barrow said the damaged helicopter covered in ash that has been seen in photos from the disaster is his aircraft.

It weighs about 1.3 tonnes, he said. "It's obviously been a fair force that moved that aircraft, that was shut down and parked."

"We had a pilot and four passengers on that aircraft, they weren't with the aircraft when the eruption happened. They were a little bit more fortunate in that they were in the final part of their tour and were down by the beach area."

The pilot and passengers got off the island by boat.

"The pilot Brian and two of the passengers escaped in pretty good shape, they managed to get into the water.

"They're in one of the hospitals. We're still in contact, but you know it's difficult to get information out of the hospital at the moment."

'Sometimes you've just got to act.'

As Mr Barrow's helicopter was preparing to leave, he said his crew did another search of the crater floor, looking for more survivors, but found none.

"We headed to Whakatāne, and one of [the people he collected] passed away on that flight. I think all those helicopters on the flight back lost a passenger."

It was a pity they could not get the other victims off the volcano, he said.

"In reflection I'm just pleased we managed to get those that we could, off."

After their flight to the island and back, authorities shut down any further access.

"We knew at that stage there were no more survivors on the volcano. So it was a time to reassess. And those decisions really got passed out of our hands.

"We've offered help. We've offered local knowledge to the police if they want that, in terms of locating and recovering remaining victims on the volcano, but that's a process that's beyond your control now."

He said he thinks Tuesday would have been a better day to return and recover victims' bodies.

"I'd go back. I think it would be a relatively quick operation to recover those victims off the island. But I also appreciate that that's not my call."

Mr Barrow moved fast to get out to Whakaari White Island as his company had passengers and a pilot out there as the eruption happened.

"And we were getting information that there were other people out there. We were incredibly concerned for their safety and the welfare.

"It wasn't a hard decision to go and the very first decision was really based around getting closer to the action and assessing the conditions as we went."

He said he is incredibly grateful to ground staff who helped with communication, and the Kahu helicopter team led by Mark Law.

"We had good lines of communication. We were able to assess the risk, and we were able to make a pretty informed decision about landing inside that volcano."

He would now love to get the remaining victims home to their families.

"That would be my biggest priority on my wish-list. We'll worry about the rest after that. One of these days we'll get that aircraft out there."

He wishes the dead were off the island already.

"I appreciate people making decisions that they think are the right ones, however I also believe that sometimes you've just got to act."

Police minister's warning

Meanwhile, the minister for police, Stuart Nash, is warning the brother of a man who died on Whakaari / White Island not to try to recover the body.

Hayden Marshall-Inman is missing, presumed dead, after Monday's eruption.

His brother, Mark has told the government he intends to fly to Whakaari and recover the body and asked for a pardon for his actions.

Mr Nash said that will not be granted, because the island isn't safe.

Mr Nash won't say what the consequences will be if Mr Inman defies the police orders, saying he understands families are frustrated but officials are working as fast as they can.