What a terrible tragedy on Whakaari, White Island. I feel for the people who were lost or injured, the guides and tour company and all the rescue agencies that helped save over half of the people who were on the island.
When you arrive on the island, having signed a consent form, saying that you understand you are on an active volcano that is highly dangerous, you are given goggles, a safety helmet and a gas mask. Of course you want to see it and the ‘danger’ is part of the excitement of visiting the island. The fact that injuries are very rare is a testament to the great job done by DOC and the tour company.
I tried breathing when I was taking photos like this one for about a minute without the mask and coughed for some time afterwards. I suspect that many of the survivors will have, or have had serious respiratory issues to go with the acid burns.
I felt last night after seeing the webcam photo of people walking towards the crater that those people would have probably died almost instantly. Part of the reason that the volcano erupts is when the fumerols get blocked and from what I remember of my visit, typically a new crater lake is formed. Where the eruption occured could have been in the side of the old crater, or may have been directly below where the people were walking.
The bulges you can see in this photo are gas mounds with a thin crust holding the gas in. We were told that if you were to accidentally step on one of those, you would probably get cooked in acid immediately. I understand people have been seriously injured but rescued in the past.
Having said that, the White Island Tour guides are very experienced and knowledgeable about where it is probably safe to walk and where it isn’t and as far as I know, they check every day before the tourists arrive.
When you land, it is like arriving in Hades or on another planet. There is nothing like an active ocean volcano and I am so glad I got to have the experience. Not that many Kiwis (as a percentage of visitors) go on the island which is very sad. It is like a wonder of the world at home and most of the visitors (on my tour there were 3 Kiwis) are from overseas and 2 of them were accompanying family from Holland.
It is likely to be a very long time before people are allowed on the island again. For now, I suspect there is going to be more activity as the ash, rocks and debris blocks fumerols and fissures, and pressure builds up again. Hopefully minor. I would also be surprised if much or any evidence remains of the people who were walking towards the crater and are missing.
All credit to all the volunteers and rescue people. This is an extremely hostile environment and the last thing we want is anyone else getting hurt, trying to rescue people who are probably long gone. When I was a Civil Defence Rescue Team Leader the golden rule was that you have to make yourself safe first before you can attempt to rescue a victim. Last night there was no safe place on the island.
I do believe, for what it’s worth, that the people who perished on the island would have had no notice of what was happening and probably didn’t die in pain.
Don’t quote me, I am just a Kiwi who has been on the island and grown up in a country that has active volcanoes. I have not been trained in volcanoes, geothermal sciences or anything else. I read, look and listen. Again my heart goes out to all involved. It is a tragedy.
I’m wearing my Whakaari, White Island T-shirt today. It says:
SHE SPEWS SULPHUR
AND I LOVE HER