First responders' devastating call to leave

Two senior medical clinicians spent about half an hour on Whakaari/White Island yesterday afternoon before concluding there was no one left who could be rescued.

Intensive care paramedic Rusty Clark was on board the Westpac 2 rescue helicopter from Auckland, which was sent out at 2.45pm yesterday.

The chopper arrived at Whakatane Airfield where a staging area was set up for a mass casualty incident.

From Whakatane Airfield the crew were sent to the island, where they were tasked with winching a critically injured patient off a boat.

During a flyover the crew assessed the risk of further eruptions and whether it was safe for the crew to land.

"We made contact with the vessel and by that stage they were about 7 miles off the coast of Whakatane so we deemed it appropriate for them to continue to shore," Clark said.

They then landed on the volcano, with two clinicians - an experienced intensive care paramedic and the medical director for St John - leaving the chopper to look around.

Footage shot at the scene shows the pair ducking to escape the wash of the rotor blades, which stirred up clouds of ash.

"They ... spent some time in a safe area, they tried to do an assessment and see if they could find anybody else," Clark said.

"If there were any people that we could bring off then we would formulate a plan, we were in direct comms with them. We basically stayed in the parameters of the island within a safe distance, and we could then go and extract them if we needed to."

The pair were on the island for between 30 and 40 minutes, he estimated, but by the end of that time it was clear that "everybody that could come off was already off the island."

Clark said the pair had "possibly" encountered other people who had not survived.

They then returned to the airfield where they were tasked with taking patients to predetermined hospitals.

Rescue crews go into search and rescue jobs "absolutely" hoping to find survivors, he said.

"That's why we do this job - when things go bad we're often the ones that have some more capability to get to people where it might be a bit difficult. When we get to retrieve survivors it's a really good feeling and it's great."

However despite being unable to rescue anyone on Monday, crew members were coping OK, Clark said.

"The collective experience of all the crews involved is quite vast. Although ... it was a big incident, it's not something that was new to us."

Rescue chopper footage reveals eruption devastation 

At first it's only a plume of smoke and steam in the distance.

But as the Westpac Rescue Helicopter gets closer to Whakaari/White Island, the extent of the eruption becomes clearer.

The huge white cloud continues to billow from the crater, and a flyover shows sediment streaming hundreds of metres out into the ocean.

The chopper lands in a moonscape of thick ash, the chopper's blades whipping up clouds of dust.

Two crew members are left on the ground unloading rescue equipment; they duck their heads and try to keep the ash out of their faces as the chopper climbs back into the air.

The footage also shows a building that appears to be damaged and half-buried in ash.

Survivors of the eruption visible from the cockpit of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter. Photo:...
Survivors of the eruption visible from the cockpit of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter. Photo: Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust.
In photos shot by the crew people are visible standing the beach, standing on the edge of a rock- and ash-strewn landscape.

An Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter Trust spokesman said the first crew had left for Whakaari/White Island at 2.40pm; the second at 2.45pm.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this morning a Westpac helicopter had landed on the island and was able to transport survivors back to the mainland.

Two private choppers and one Volcanic Air helicopter had also been sent to the scene after the eruption, with one of those able to rescue people.

Ardern called those first responders "courageous", saying pilots made an "incredibly brave" decision to fly into such a dangerous situation.

One pilot had later spent about 45 minutes at the volcano carrying out a physical search, both aerial and on the ground.

He had been able to see some of those left on the island at the time of the eruption. There were no signs of life.

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