New Zealand volcano: Six confirmed dead as police launch investigation

Hayley Dixon
Hayden Marshall-Inman was among those confirmed dead

Rescuers have told how they tried to save dying tourists covered in ash after the New Zealand volcano erupted in scenes compared to “Chernobyl”.

One of those who had been rescued from White Island in the wake of the eruption died in hospital on Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to six with a further eight people missing presumed dead.

Two British women are among the 30 still being treated in hospital, with medics warning that many have suffered burns to more than 30 per cent of their bodies and are still in critical conditions.

On Tuesday night, New Zealand police said 25 of the injured are in a critical condition while the other five are stable but seriously injured. 

Police believed that there were 47 people on the island when tragedy stuck and alongside the two British women there were 24 visitors from Australia, nine from the US, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two from China and one person from Malaysia.

The initial five dead were understood to include Hayden Marshall-Inman, an experienced guide for White Island Tours, alongside the tourist from Malaysia and three people from Australia.

Hayden Marshall-Inman was among those confirmed dead

Questions have been raised as to why visitors were allowed on the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano’s alert level last month.

“These questions must be asked and they must be answered,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament as police announced that they were launching an investigation.

Local tourism authorities market White Island, or 'Whakaari', as it is known in the Maori language, as "the world's most accessible active marine volcano" and roughly 10,000 people visit every year.

The heroic tales of rescuers who risked their own lives to save others began to emerge for the first time . Mark Law, who runs a company which organises tours to the island but had not been flying that day, said that he scrambled two of his helicopters to the island after they saw the plume of smoke.

Mr Law told the Guardian: “We both landed in the centre of the island where we felt it was OK. It was ashing but we could deal with it. We went to assess everyone. We were moving around tending to people who were in real distress. We wanted to reassure them. We found people dead, dying and alive but in various states of unconsciousness.”

“It felt like running through talcum powder. It was very hard to breathe and without a gas mask we were gasping for air, but … adrenalin takes over. I’d rather break a few rules and save some lives than sit here wondering what we could have done.”

They took as many people as possible with them as they did not know if the emergency services would make it.

The former soldier, who has previously served in African War Zones, said: “The burns were horrific. A lot of the people could not talk. It was pretty quiet. The only real words were things like, ‘help’. They were covered in ash and dust. We were picking them up and skin was coming off in our hands.”

Russell Clark, a paramedic who flew as part of the initial scramble to rescue tourists, said that the scene was like something out of "the Chernobyl mini-series".

The authorities have since been unable to reach the island because of dangerous conditions but they have said that they believe that anyone trapped on the island is dead.

Among those unaccounted for is 23-year old Tipene Maangi a local tour guide who had been called in on his day off. Anthony and Kristine Langford and their children Jesse, 19, and his 17-year-old sister Winona were visiting the island from a cruise ship and their family have been unable to find them.

Brian Dallow, of Adelaide, South Australia, said his lawyer son Gavin Dallow, 53, and his partner’s daughter Zoe Hosking, 15, were among those whose fates were uncertain.

Lisa Hosking, 48, had been found in hospital. Lillani Hopkins, a 23-year-old Geography student who moved to New Zealand from the UK three years ago, said that she froze when she saw people covered in ash and diving into the sea to cool their burns.

She had just left the island with her father Geoff, but their tourist boat turned back and they helped to rescue 23 people.

Miss Hopkins told Stuff NZ: "It looked like a bomb had gone off. There was a crippled helicopter that had been knocked off the pad. The propellers had been all bent and broken.

“All I could think was, if it can do that to metal, what can it do to human skin?" Some of them were talking whilst others were unconscious and some "couldn't do anything but scream in pain".

Miss Hopkins added: "I was looking at being a volcanologist ... but honestly, I don't think I could ever go back. Five minutes earlier it could have been me."

What we know so far

  1. Six people confirmed dead
  2. British citizens among those missing and injured
  3. At least 31 treated for injuries
  4. At least eight people remain missing
  5. No sign of life detected by helicopter
  6. Island too dangerous for rescue attempts
  7. Volcano erupted just after 2.10pm local time
  8. Ash plume reached 12,000ft (3,657m)
  9. White Island is New Zealand's most active volcano

A crater rim camera, owned and operated by New Zealand's geological hazards agency GeoNet, showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion. Other webcams showed the explosion that shot an ash plume about 12,000 feet (3,658 m) into the air.

"It's now clear that there were two groups on the island - those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption," Ms Ardern added.

GNS Science, New Zealand's geoscience agency, warned there was a 50/50 chance of another eruption in the next 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit "steam and mud jetting".