11 Dec 2019

Whakaari / White Island eruption, day 3: What you need to know

3:40 pm on 11 December 2019

Whakatāne District Council has announced it is closing public access to a section of wooden wharf used by White Island Tours.

Boats belonging to White Island Tours are seen after tours were suspended in Whakatane on December 10, 2019, following the volcanic eruption on White Island the day before.

Boats belonging to White Island Tours are seen tied up at Whakatāne wharf after tours were suspended to Whakaari / White Island. Photo: AFP

"A section of the wooden wharf which accommodates the White Island Tours vessels has been closed to public access by Whakatāne District Council," the council said in a press release.

"Public access has been restricted for health and safety purposes and temporary fencing has been erected, with signage to follow."

Meanwhile, Internal Affairs has provided a clarification about the ownership, governance and management of White Island, saying Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta acts as its Territorial Authority, which is similar to a district council.

These functions are limited given the island is uninhabited and its undeveloped land is under private ownership, the department's media statement says.

Internal Affairs' responsibility is to support the Minister in exercising her functions. The Whakatāne District Council, as the territorial authority for the mainland base for access to the island, does not have any responsibility for Whakaari/White Island. The island falls within the boundaries of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council for regional council functions.

Internal Affairs has a Memorandum of Understanding in place with the regional council's Civil Defence group to exercise the Minister's roles in a civil defence response, as they are the local experts with people on the ground. Those arrangements were activated as expected on Monday.

Coroners working on formal identification of victims' bodies

The chief coroner has declared the Whakaari / White Island deaths as a mass fatality incident and says work has already begin identifying victims' bodies.

The chief coroner has declared the Whakaari / White Island deaths as a mass fatality incident and says work has already begin identifying victims' bodies.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall says coroners will use recognised Interpol standards for victim identification. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The bodies of the six people who had died were now in a mortuary in Auckland - five taken from Whakatāne and one from Middlemore Hospital of the person who died late yesterday.

Post-mortems have started already in Auckland. Three coroners are working on identifying the bodies, with assistance from the Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall.

She told a media briefing in Auckland this morning: "I have declared a mass fatality incident which means a number of agencies are working together to resolve this tragedy.

"We will be using recognised Interpol standards for victim identification."

She said they would be gathering evidence and information from people and witnesses to try and formally identify the victims.

That would include any jewellery people had been wearing and notable scars or tattoos.

Most of the bodies will be taken to Auckland but if any people die of their injuries in hospitals around the country this may not be necessary because they may have been formally identified and their cause of death would be known known already.

Police Acting Assistant Commissioner Bruce Bird.

Acting Assistant Commissioner Bruce Bird Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Acting Assistant Commissioner Bruce Bird told media they are making assessments every two to three hours on whether it is safe to go out to Whakaari / White Island to recover the bodies of the eight people believed to be still on the island.

"Safety for our staff is a huge priority and we've got to get that right. We've got scientific information at our disposal..."

He confirmed a drone has successfully gone up over Whakaari / White Island today.

When asked about poor weather that is about to descend on the region adding urgency to a possible recovery mission today, Acting Assistant Commissioner Bird said: "...nothing is ruled out."

Significant rise in volcanic activity

Volcanic activity on Whakaari / White Island has been steadily increasing since about 4am today, GNS Science says.

Volcanic gas pressure remains high on the island, where steam and mud have been jetting from craters.

GNS Scientist Dr Craig Miller

Craig Miller Photo: ResearchGate

The volcanic alert level remains at 3 - out of 5 - and the aviation code remains at 'orange' - indicating an eruption is occurring with little or no ash produced.

Duty volcanologist Craig Miller said the tremors indicate evidence of continued high gas pressures within the volcano.

"The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity. Eruptions in the next 24 hours are still likely to occur. Results from the gas flight conducted Tuesday afternoon are still being analysed.

"These are important for understanding the processes driving the volcanic activity. The gas flights are conducted in the air, hundreds of metres above the volcano and concentrations measured there may not reflect concentrations present in the crater floor.

"There is an extremely low likelihood of any potential ash affecting the mainland, but people may smell gas, depending on the prevailing wind direction. Our monitoring equipment continues to function and is providing us with continuous data on the volcano's activity."

A view of Whakaari/White Island from the air as a helicopter approaches.

The scene at White Island a short time after the eruption. Photo: Supplied/Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

Police defend pace of body recovery

The recovery of bodies from Whakaari / White Island is an absolute priority, police say.

Flowers have been laid at the Port of Tauranga.

Flowers that were laid at the Port of Tauranga. Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

Police have been criticised for delaying the recovery mission to the island, with a few on social media likening the situation to Pike River.

In a statement, the police said: "We understand and appreciate the desire of families and the public for the bodies to be retrieved as soon as possible.

"Our staff and partner agencies are committed to making this happen.

"It is important to note that the environment on the island has changed since the eruption."

They said they are meeting with GNS Science this morning to gain a better understanding of what is happening with volcanic activity.

Police have disaster victim identification specialists standing by in Whakatāne ready to be deployed.

"This is a skilled role that must be undertaken with the utmost care and consideration."

Earlier today, Police Minister Stuart Nash said conditions at the volcano were still volatile and the police are not going to send anyone back to the island unless it is safe.

"There's actually a thick wet acidic ash on the ground there. GNS say there is a 50 percent chance of another volcanic eruption so it's a very unstable environment over there at this point in time."

Death toll rises to six

The official death toll stands at six after another person died late yesterday in Middlemore Hospital in Auckland.

Thirty people remain in hospitals around the country, 25 patients remain in a critical condition, nine of whom are unable to communicate.

The remaining five patients are in a stable but serious condition.

Stuart Nash told Morning Report some people are still unidentified.

"There are a number of people in hospital who cannot communicate because they have had significant burns not only to skin but also to internal organs. So we are working very closely with a number of agencies to ensure we get this identification right."

Australian Federal police have sent a victim identification team to work with New Zealand police.

Toxic gases likened to cyanide effects

A medical specialist said those hospitalised after the White Island eruption will have inhaled toxic gases, one of which has a similar effect to cyanide.

David McBride from the Dunedin School of Medicine told Morning Report first responders reported difficulty breathing, even through their masks, and stinging faces, indicating sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide were present.

He said hydrogen sulphide is particularly dangerous and has been responsible for three deaths of visitors to the geothermal areas in Rotorua.

"In terms of toxicity the dangerous thing about it is, its action is similar to cyanide - it paralyses the respiratory centre so you stop breathing and shortly after that the heart stops as well... It stops the cells' respiration."

Dr McBride said some patients may be suffering from internal burns from the temperatures of those gases.

Patients would be facing long recoveries from their injuries.

There was no way he would ever visit Whakaari / White Island and visitors to the geothermal areas in Rotorua needed to take care, he said.

Head and solider photo outside

David McBride says hydrogen sulphide is particularly dangerous and has killed three visitors to the geothermal areas in Rotorua. Photo: RNZ / Kate Pereyra Garcia

Long recovery journey for burns victims

A burn victims' support group says the Whakaari / White Island survivors are at the beginning of a very long physical, emotional and psychological journey.

The Ministry of Health says almost all of the injured have burns to 30 percent of their bodies.

A Burn Support Group spokesperson, Michele Henry, says many burns survivors feel isolated, and it's important for others to show them empathy.

The group runs events for survivors to get together, where she says they feel at ease with each other and start to feel normal again in their own skin.

Henry says her group will be offering support to the relatives of the injured, and she says donations are always welcome.

Emotional scenes as Ovation of the Seas leaves Tauranga

Crowds gathered at the Port of Tauranga and other vantage points to farewell the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas as it set sail around 6.45am.

Thirty-eight passengers and crew from the ship travelled to White Island on Monday and many have been seriously injured in the eruption.

Cruise passengers could be seen on board waving to those on land.

Bridges, mayor favour tourism resuming on White Island

National Party leader Simon Bridges says he'd like to think tourism to White Island should be allowed to resume in time.

"There'll be people with a strongly different view than this and there'll be people who will say as a result of this, well I for one am definitely never going back on but I think there are risks in many things ... skiing on Ruapehu at [volcano alert] level 2 is not uncommon at all.

"You would like to think there is still a role for people to do things - assessing the risks of it sensibly - such as going on to what are active volcanoes."

He is confident the iwi and tour operators have been properly assessing the risks.

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner is adamant tourism should continue, but locals are less sure about whether people should be allowed on Whakaari / White Island.

However, she said there would need to be conversations about when it was appropriate to visit the island, and whether an alert level of 2 was too high for people to be visiting.

"I think that's the kind of question that's going to be considered, certainly it's never been a problem 'til [the eruption].

"At the time they went out, it was a level 2. That isn't considered necessarily in the matrix of things a high reading, they've been out under those circumstances on numerous times without event."

However, one local, Piripi Akuhata, said a rāhui placed on the island should not be lifted and that Whakaari was no place for people.

"As for tourism, yeah nah. In my eyes nah. They should leave Whakaari alone ... she's had enough, I think Whakaari's had enough."

Whakatane mayor Judy Turner speaks to media. 10.12.19

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner says level 2 alerts on White Island have never been a problem until Monday's eruption. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Māori tertiary provider offers accommodation

A Māori tertiary provider in Whakatāne has opened its doors to anyone involved in the Whakaari - White Island tragedy.

Some people are already staying at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi for a few days as they wait for more information about a relative, and more people are expected to arrive in the coming days.

The chief executive of the wānanga, Wiremu Doherty, said 30 to 40 people from one whānau who have a relative caught up in the eruption have arrived to stay for a few days and more are welcome.

They have room to host up to 90 people at a push.

"It's still a wee bit fluid. No-one knows anything with any certainty at this stage and we've just made the rooms available. It's a quiet place where people can sit and reflect and make plans as information comes to light."

He said there are also 12 police on site, providing support for the whānau and others.

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