Specialist volcanic response crew discussed before tragic eruption

An aerial view of Whaakari / White Island after the deadly eruption. Photo: Supplied
An aerial view of Whaakari / White Island after the deadly eruption. Photo: Supplied
The creation of a specialist emergency services "volcanic response crew" was discussed in the years leading up to the Whakaari / White Island tragedy.

But Police HQ have confirmed it did not "gain momentum" and was not created.

They have also confirmed that a proposed multi-agency "desktop exercise scenario" around a volcanic eruption on White Island had been planned to be carried out - but tragically, the timing was for after the December 9, 2019 disaster.

Twenty-two people lost their lives – and more than 25 other people suffered serious injuries – after the once popular tourist attraction off the Bay of Plenty coastline erupted.

The dead and dying who were rescued from the island were taken back to the mainland via tour operator vessels and private helicopter owners who flew out after news broke of the devastating eruption.

The lack of an immediate formal emergency response to the island has previously been heavily criticised by Stephanie Browitt, a young Australian tourist who lost her sister, Krystal, and father, Paul, in the tragedy, and also suffered life-threatening injuries herself.

In a response to an Official Information Act request from NZME, Police HQ confirmed the creation of a volcanic response unit had been discussed as early as 2013 at a meeting by the Eastern Bay of Plenty Emergency Services Coordinating Committee (ESCC).

Inspector Nic Brown, Acting Director Capability, Frontline Capacity, said "based on current inquiries, the suggestion of a volcanic response crew did not gain momentum past" a proposal made in 2013.

Brown said that eruption response plans had been developed specifically for White Island by Eastern Bay of Plenty police and Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Emergency Management.

"The Mass Casualty Plan, prepared by the Bay of Plenty police, along with the Police National Mass Rescue Plan, were also in place."

Brown also revealed that on "several occasions" a desktop exercise simulating a rescue from White Island had been proposed.

That included a proposal in 2018. The scenario for the exercise was drafted in May 2019 and the mock operation scheduled to run on February 13, 2020.

By that time, 21 people had lost their lives as a result of horrific injuries and burns, as well as internal injuries, they suffered on White Island.

The death toll later rose to 22 on July 2, 2020, after German tourist Horst Westenfelder died in an overseas hospital.

His death has been put down to the result of complications suffered while being treated for his injuries.

Brown said a "number of exercises relating to other hazards/risks for the Eastern Bay of Plenty" had been carried out "over the years". They included those as part of the ESCC or be individual agencies who were part of the organisation.

"The learning points from these exercises were presented/discussed back at the ESCC forum."

On the first anniversary of the tragic day on White Island, Browitt criticised New Zealand emergency services for what she believed was a slow response to the eruption.

The 23-year-old said she believed had help arrived quickly, the death toll would have been lower.

"I'm upset at the whole situation, but I'm very angry that it took so long for the rescue to come," she told Four Corners.

"Now I realise rescue actually wasn't coming. It was just three pilots who chose to risk their own lives to help us and if they hadn't come, we'd all be gone.

"I know that if help had come sooner, there would probably be more people alive from our group."

Browitt recalled it was almost an hour before help arrived via the private helicopter owners.

Auckland's Westpac Rescue Helicopter later flew to the island, by which time all the survivors had been taken back to Whakatāne.









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