Whakaari / White Island eruption: Pilots who took risk to rescue people honoured for bravery

5:30 am on 26 October 2022
Pilot Mark Law rescued victims after the Whakaari / White Island eruption

Pilot Mark Law took part in rescue efforts after the Whakaari / White Island eruption in December 2019. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

When Whakaari / White Island erupted in 2019, dispatch orders from the national air ambulance service deemed landing on the island too dangerous.

A group of commercial helicopter pilots went anyway.

Today, it has been announced they will receive the country's highest honours for their courage.

Kāhu Helicopters chief executive officer and former SAS soldier Mark Law will receive the New Zealand Bravery Star for his exceptional bravery.

Tom Storey, Jason Hill, Tim Barrow, Graeme Hopcroft, Callum Mill, and Sam Jones will receive the New Zealand Bravery Decoration.

Law was the first person to arrive on the island after it erupted.

He said it was difficult to reconcile his happy memories of the island with the traumatic scene he encountered upon landing.

"Seeing so many people in one area who were in so much distress and people that had passed away, in an area that brought so much joy to so many people during all the tours and visits to the island," he said. "That's probably the hardest thing, I think, that probably struck us all."

He had been driving along the coast of the mainland when he saw a dark plume emanating from the volcano. He said he did not stop to think about whether he should go.

Within 50 minutes, Law had landed his helicopter on the island's landing pad, put on a gas mask, and begun his search, shin-deep in ash.

The Whakaari / White Island mission to recover bodies of victims.

A recovery team later went to the island to recover the bodies of the victims. Photo: NZDF

Law had found 20 people at the volcano's crater, eight of whom had already died, by the time Tom Storey and Jason Hill landed in another Kāhu helicopter.

Leaving their engines and rotors on to improve the chances of taking off again in acidic air, the three pilots ran from person to person across the crater assessing injuries.

The people injured were with extensive burns and in various stages of consciousness.

Ash fell on the men as they moved about and the acidic air made breathing difficult.

Law ran back to fly his helicopter up to the crater, closer to the injured and began loading them on board - five maximum.

Many of those injured did not have the strength to carry themselves, so the men carried them on their shoulders to the helicopters.

Time was of the essence, which became clearer when a young woman died in Storey's arms while he was carrying her to the helicopter.

Soon enough, Volcanic Air director and pilot Tim Barrow and pilots Graeme Hopcroft, Callum Mill and Sam Jones arrived from Rotorua in two helicopters to help load people.

Volcanic Air pilot Tim Barrow, who flew to rescue people after the Whakaari / White Island eruption, speaks to RNZ's Checkpoint.

Volcanic Air director and pilot Tim Barrow Photo: RNZ

Three helicopters flew to Whākatane hospital with 12 injured people on board within just 40 minutes.

Still on the island, Storey, Mill and Jones did a final sweep to ensure there were no remaining survivors.

They carefully grouped bodies close together, placing found phones with the deceased person to help with identification.

The Whakaari / White Island mission to recover bodies of the victims.

A recovery team later went to the island to recover the bodies of the victims. Photo: NZDF

A rescue helicopter with St John personnel eventually arrived and the three men gave a report of the survivors and deceased they had found.

Only two of the rescued 12 survived.

There were 47 people on the volcano when it erupted, most of them international tourists. A total of 22 people died - either from the explosion or later of their injuries - and a further 25 were injured that day.

Law said it had been a tough few years since the eruption.

"It destroyed our business, that's for sure," he said.

"Put a massive amount of strain on me, and then Covid and all the rest of the story."

In November 2020, just before the first anniversary of the disaster, WorkSafe announced it was laying charges against 13 organisations and individuals.

Those charged are: the island's owner Whakaari Management Limited and its directors Andrew, James and Peter Buttle; GNS Science; the National Emergency Management Agency; White Island Tours Limited; Volcanic Air Safaris Limited; Aerius Limited; Kahu NZ Limited; Inflite Charters Limited; I D Tours New Zealand Limited; and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited.

It specified the charges did not relate to events on the day of the eruption, or the rescue efforts.

All parties have denied the charges they faced.

"Being labelled criminals is never the most helpful thing in the world," Law said.

While the bravery award did not take the sting out of the WorkSafe prosecution, it did remind him that New Zealanders valued helping each other.

"There's still some really good people who treasure effort," he said.

"[If] that's someone's life, just go."

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