Paul Kingi called a hero for his efforts to rescue people after the Whakaari / White Island eruption

7:39 pm on 10 December 2019

A tour guide has been called a hero for dragging more than 20 people off Whakaari / White Island in suffocating conditions.

This handout photograph courtesy of Michael Schade shows White Island Tour operators rescuing people minutes after the volcano on New Zealand's White Island erupted on December 9, 2019.

White Island Tour operators rescuing people minutes after the volcano erupted. Photo: AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL SCHADE

White Island Tours manager Paul Kingi had just left the island with his tour group when the volcano erupted shortly after 2pm yesterday.

Mr Kingi recounted the experience to friend and former employer Rick Pollock, a former charter boat operator.

Mr Pollock spoke to RNZ about Mr Kingi's incredible actions in the most challenging and tragic of conditions.

"He actually wasn't the skipper of the boat [at the time] and that's really quite fortuitous because had he been the skipper he wouldn't have been able to co-ordinate things as well as he did. And his input was absolutely vital at that time," Mr Pollock said.

"Had he been the skipper he would have had that responsibility too and he couldn't have spread himself too thin. But Paul, being a free agent, was able to get back on the island and pretty much perform all the heroics."

Mr Kingi got into an inflatable dinghy and made his way back to the erupting island.

"He just charged back into that crater and was just pulling people off left right and centre - I think he pulled in excess of 20 people out."

Just as he was giving up hope of finding any more survivors, Mr Pollock said Mr Kingi saw a figure through the ash.

"He said that the atmosphere was acidic, acrid and just horrible and he was really starting to get concerned for himself when he saw him," Mr Pollock said.

"That was the last person he rescued. And that man, he said, had a full inch of ash all over him."

Mr Pollock also got the terrible news yesterday that one of his and Mr Kingi's former workmates and good friends, Hayden Marshall-Inman, was among the dead.

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Hayden Marshall-Inman. Photo: Supplied/ Facebook/ Stephen Parker

"I'm devastated. Absolutely, utterly devastated. Hayden was one of my relief crewmen and was just about my second son - I knew that boy very well," he said.

Mr Kingi was also his mentor and the two were very close.

Mr Pollock said despite having a thick skin, the ordeal was going to be very hard on Mr Kingi, particularly given what he witnessed yesterday.

"Paul's just a legend. I've known him for a long time and I've never known a more resourceful person, I've never met a person who's able to grasp a situation so quickly and to act so properly every single time," Mr Pollock said.

"I've been on an uninhabited island with him shipwrecked for five days and he did all the same things there.

"Nothing that he did yesterday surprised me but I had to mention [it] because they're talking about the helicopter pilots being heroes - and I have no doubt that they were and are - but Paul flies under the radar so often and he's just such an incredible guy in every instance and he really showed it yesterday. He really put his life on the line."

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