White Island Eruption: No signs of survivors on Whakaari

News 09/12/2019

For the latest updates tune into Magic Talk radio, as we bring you the very latest on all the information coming from the island as it happens.

Eight people are missing and five confirmed dead after a volcanic eruption on White Island / Whakaari. A further 31 are in hospital receiving treatment.

Those still on the island are not likely to be alive, according to police who have carried out aerial searches. A pilot also carried out a physical search of the island and found no signs of life.

Forty-seven people from six countries - such as China, United States and Australia - visited the island on Monday.

What you need to know:

  • A devastating volcanic eruption occurred on White Island / Whakaari at 2:11pm on Monday afternoon - the biggest for the volcano in recent history.
  • Forty-seven people visited the island on Monday. Of these, five are confirmed dead, 31 are in hospital, three have been discharged, and eight are missing. The visitors come from six countries, including New Zealand, Australia and China.
  • Police believe those who remain on the island are unlikely to be alive.
  • The survivors on the mainland all have injuries, ranging from minor to critical. Some are in hospitals around the region and in Auckland. 
  • Emergency services have been unable to return to the island as they have received advice saying it is unstable.
  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is promising an investigation into the health and safety procedures around the island and tours there.
  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed 24 Australians were on the island at the time of eruption. Up to three of the five dead could be Australian. Eleven Australians are unaccounted for.
  • At least 28 people from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship went to the island on Monday.


7pm - The nationalities of the 47 people who were on the island when it erupted have been confirmed. 

There were:

  • 24 people from Australia
  • Two people from China
  • Four people from Germany
  • One person from Malaysia
  • Five people from New Zealand
  • Two people from the United Kingdom
  • Nine people from the United States of America

6:53pm - Police are continuing to monitor conditions on White Island and are hoping to deploy drones when the weather improves. 

Police said they understood people’s desire to recover their loved ones and are working around the clock to get to the island.

6:15pm - "We had certainly seen an increase in moderate unrest in recent weeks and communicated increased activity and [the] chance of eruption that goes with that," senior volcanologist Graham Leonard said at a GNS press conference. 

The volcanic alert level remains at level 3. The Aviation Colour Code remains at Orange.

GeoNet said if there is a similar-sized or smaller eruption in the next 24 hours, there is an extremely low likelihood of ash impacting the mainland. People may smell gas, depending on the wind direction.

5:10pm - Whakatāne District Mayor Judy Turner has sent her condolences to the victims and their families and acknowledged the work of first responders.

"We are all working with relevant authorities regarding recovery operation and the Royal Caribbean cruise ship organisation," she said.

Turner said the criminal investigation will need "time to run its course" and is unsure of its timeline.

"Our focus is on welfare and the care of people and their families. We want to acknowledge that White Island tours have been running this for near on 30 years... personally, I have been [on a tour] with them and was impressed and confident."

5:04pm - WorkSafe New Zealand has opened a health and safety investigation into the harm and loss of life caused by the eruption, a WorkSafe spokesperson confirmed.

WorkSafe will be investigating and considering all of the relevant work, health and safety issues surrounding this tragic event.

4:51pm - Twenty-seven of the 31 injured have suffered "greater than 30 percent body-surface burns", Ministry of Health spokesperson Pete Watson confirmed at the conference.

The injured are aged between 13 and 72.

Many of the injured have suffered inhalation burns, Watson said.

4:46pm - Tims said police believe the eight missing people are deceased.

GNS Science is currently considering the condition of the island, the requirements of those going to the island and the transport of the deceased when they are recovered.

"We understand what we need to do for friends and family," Tims said.

"We understand desire to remove their family from the island... we are working hard."

A criminal investigation will be launched by NZ Police into the deaths and injuries on White Island.

Tims said he's confident police did everything they could to evacuate people from the island on Monday.

4:41pm - Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black and NZ Police deputy commissioner John Tims are addressing the media at Police National HQ in Wellington.

Thirty-one people remain in hospitals across the country.

"This is truly heartbreaking," Stuart-Black said.

Monitoring equipment on White Island is still functioning and able to provide real-time updates. 

There is a 50 percent chance of a smaller eruption in the next 24 hours. Another large eruption is unlikely.

The level of volcanic activity remains at three, which indicates a minor alert level.

3:32pm - Whakatāne District Mayor Judy Turner will hold a short media briefing on the White Island/Whakaari event response. The briefing will commence at 5:15pm at Whakatāne District Council.

3:08pm - People can donate to Philips Search & Rescue Trust to ensure rescue helicopters can continue bringing life-saving equipment, rescue personnel and intensive care paramedics directly to the patient. Donations can be made here.

2:13pm - New Zealand and Australia's flags are at half-mast outside of Parliament. 

2:05pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is delivering a speech at Parliament with updates on the White Island natural disaster.

"There were two explosions in quick succession. The police have advised that five are deceased and 31 have sustained injuries. A further eight are still missing. Three have been discharged overnight... no signs of life on the island have been detected."

The PM also acknowledged the bravery of the helicopter pilots who helped with the rescue effort.

A tourist from Germany has been confirmed as being involved in the disaster, bringing the total of nationalities to seven. 

"In particular, our family in Australia have been heavily impacted," Ardern said.

1:48pm - The police have released a statement regarding the continued work to enable the recovery of the eight people unaccounted for on White Island.

"Recovering the remaining victims and returning them to their loved ones is an absolute priority for NZ Police.

"Police are working closely with experts from GNS Science to get an understanding of the current environment on Whakaari / White Island and the likelihood of any further volcanic activity, as well as any risks posed to recovery teams by gases in the atmosphere.

"This is a heartbreaking situation for all involved and we are working to provide every support possible to the families and loved ones of those killed and injured in the eruption."

Police Family Liaison Officers are being deployed nationwide to assist with support. The nationalities of the deceased and the injured, as well as the conditions of the injured, will be released at the earliest opportunity.

1:35pm - The White Island eruption was a "disaster waiting to happen", according to an expert.

Emeritus Professor Ray Cas from Monash University's School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment says he has visited it twice and always "felt that it was too dangerous to all the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano". 

"In the lead up to major eruptions there can be elevated levels of steam release, small explosions and increased seismicity, as occurred on this occasion in the last two weeks."

1:15pm - The Gisborne earthquake is unrelated to the eruption, according to GeoNet.

1:10pm - There will be several questions to ministers about the Whakaari disaster at Question Time in Parliament at 2pm.

Labour MP Rino Tirikatene will ask the Minister of Civil Defence: "What actions has the National Emergency Management Agency taken in response to the eruption on Whakaari / White Island?"

Greg O'Connor will ask the Minister of Police: "What actions have the Police taken in response to the eruption on Whakaari / White Island?"

Angie Warren-Clark will ask the Minister of Health: "How is the health system responding to the tragedy at Whakaari / White Island?"

1:05pm - National leader Simon Bridges says he doesn't "necessarily" see a connection between authorities' handling of the Whakaari eruption and the 2010 Pike River explosion.

"I've seen those comments... as I say, that sort of grief, frustration, possibly anger from family members and the like is understandable, but we're in recovery at the moment. There will be a time for asking these sorts of questions."

It comes after criticism of police handling of the incident by a family member of one of the victims.

1pm - There has been a strong 5.3 magnitude earthquake south of Gisborne. 

It was felt in Whakatane. 

12:10pm - GeoNet has released its second Volcanic Alert Bulletin, saying that steam and gas is still coming from an active vent.

"Since the eruption, seismic activity has dropped to low levels and there has been no further eruptive activity. However, we are still observing localised steam and mud jetting from the active vent area," said the bulletin.

"Over the next 24 hours we estimate an equal likelihood of either no eruption or a smaller/similar sized eruption that would impact the main crater floor. There is a high level of uncertainty associated with this estimate. We also estimate the least likely scenario is a larger eruption. There is an extremely low likelihood of any ash impact to the mainland, but gas may be smelt depending on the prevailing wind direction."

GeoNet is attempting to collect gas data to "aid in future prognosis of the volcano".

The alert level remains at 3 with the aviation colour code at Orange.

11:35am - The Canterbury DHB says that eight patients affected by the eruption were transported to their hospitals. However, they wouldn't say what their statuses are.

11:30am - GeoNet says it will be releasing an updated Volcanic Alert Bulletin soon.

11:10am - The Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, has tweeted that he will head to Whakatane to support those responding to the tragedy.

"I'm hearing incredible stories of bravery about Kiwis coming to the aid of those affected.

"My and Natalie's thoughts go out to all those families waiting for news or already dealing with the unthinkable and to our emergency services and health workers working around the clock. New Zealand is behind you."

The New Zealand Green Party also sends aroha to the families.

10:50am - ABC journalist Donna Field is on the Ovation of the Seas ship and says it is surreal on board on Tuesday morning. 

"The Captain of Ovation of the Seas says the tragedy on White Island is unfathomable. He’s offered his condolences to those families onboard who are affected," she said.

"Another announcement from the Capt to say the Ovation of the Seas will remain in port in Tauranga while they await more news from NZ authorities."

10:40am - Newshub has crafted a map of White Island showing the key points.

White Island map. Photo credit: Newshub.

10:35am - Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters has released images taken of White Island.

Photo credit: Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters.
Photo credit: Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters.
Photo credit: Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters.
Photo credit: Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters.

10:15am - Health Minister David Clark has acknowledgedthe doctors, nurses and allied health workers involved in the disaster.

"There are a large number of hospitals involved across the system and I want to acknowledge the workers there: the doctors, the nurses, and allied health workers who are supporting those who are in a challenging situation," he said.

"We have very skilled medical practitioners across our system. Obviously, there is a high demand on services, and so I do want to acknowledge the work that's going on there and the people in the hospitals that are responding with compassion and skill."

10am - Around 50 staff and 30 friends and family have just left the White Island headquarters to attend a karakia at the local marae. They were upset and holding on to each other as they walked in.

9:55am - Hutt Hospital says it is treating four patients from White Island. Waikato Hospital is treating eight in a critical condition.

9:50am - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has arrived Whakatane hospital. She is meeting with medical staff there. All patients have been moved to other hospitals.

9:40am - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is speaking to media. He sends his thoughts to affected Aussies and Kiwis. He is accompanied by Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

He said the 24 Australians that visited White Island are aged between 17 and 72. 

Morrison has been to White Island himself in the past.

Thirteen of the Australians are hospitalised. Eleven are unaccounted for. Up to three of the five dead confirmed could be Australians, but Morrison says this has not been confirmed.

9:30am - Speaking to The AM Show earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed there will be an inquiry into the tragedy, including why tourists were able to go to the island.

The full story can be found here.

Twitter user Michael Schade was safely evacuated form the island and captured images from the eruption.

9am - Gerry Brownlee, the former Civil Defence Minister, told The AM Show on Tuesday morning that it was a grim situation.

"New Zealand is a country where you have to accept you live with your risk. There is nowhere in the country that there isn't some risk of some geological activity causing disruption in your life."

He said it was too soon to decide whether to stop tours to the island. He doesn't believe the recovery operation will be a "simple matter".

But Brownlee said it was useful for scientists to study the volcano.

7:55am - Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom Prime Minister, has sent his sympathies to New Zealanders and those caught in the disaster.

"Devastating scenes in New Zealand. I’ve been in contact with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to express our deepest sympathies. There are many people still feared missing, and my heart goes out to all those affected and their families."

7:50am - British High Commissioner to New Zealand Laura Clarke has confirmed two British women have been hospitalised. 

"My team are deploying to offer assistance in person, & we remain in close contact with New Zealand authorities. We will do all we can to help any other Brits who need our help."

7:45am - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is speaking to The AM Show.

She said police are "eager" to undertake a "recovery", but must rely on scientific advice.

"It is described as a very unpredictable volcano."

A number of people with burn injuries are in a "critical condition", the Prime Minister says. She wouldn't confirm if children were injured.

On whether there will be an inquiry into health and safety procedures and an investigation into the tour operations - "absolutely", she says.

There will be no people visiting the island until given the all go by police and GNS scientists.

Four helicopters were involved in the rescue efforts.

7am - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is speaking to the media. She confirms there were two explosions in quick succession at 2:11pm on Monday.

Ardern said helicopters flew to the island following the eruption and took survivors back to the mainland.

"I want to acknowledge the courageous decision made by first responders and those pilots, who in an immediate rescue effort, made an incredibly brave decision under an extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out."

She says there were two groups on the island. One was rescued, one was closer to the crater during the eruption.

"We share in your unfathomable grief at this moment in time and in your sorrow. Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who were hosting you here. We grieve with you and we grieve with them."

Ardern said she would support our "Australian family".

The Prime Minister also acknowleged local MP Anne Tolley.

6:55am - The AM Show's Australian correspondent Jason Morrison said the "inevitable" is a recovery operation rather than a rescue. 

6:35am - MagicTalk producer Brin Rudkin spoke to The AM Show on Tuesday morning from Tauranga, where the Ovation of the Seas is docked. It was meant to depart the port on Monday night, but remained due to large number of passengers affected.

Rudkin said it was a very "eerie" feeling at the wharf where the ship is docked.

"Flowers and even a New Zealand flag have started to appear at the gates to the Port of Tauranga as people start to pay their respects to those caught in the eruption," he said.

It's understood most of the ship's passengers are Australians.

The volcanic eruption began at around 2:15pm on Monday.

A group of people believed to be tourists were on the island at the time.

Following the eruption an volcanic ash advisory has been issued for the area around White Island, with a level four alert in place.

As of 4:00pm a tourist boat remianed docked at the island and a helicopter is unaccounted for.

The MET Service has said that the eruption has been large enough so as to be visible from space.

While GNS cameras show that minutes before the explosion there was a group of people walking close to the crater.

Photo credit: GNS