Onboard a tourist boat near the volcanic eruption

The full scale of the disaster on New Zealand’s most active cone volcano is not yet known, although five people have been confirmed dead and up to two dozen remain unaccounted for. More deaths are likely, police have said.

After the eruption, the island was covered in a thick, black cloud of smoke.

Michael Schade, was visiting the island with his parents according to The Guardian. He says the skipper of his boat had put on some speed to try to get away from the volcano. But as the smoke cleared, those on board could see a crowd of people back on the jetty – tourists from another boat belonging to the operator, White Island Tours – scared and needing to be rescued. Schade’s boat returned.

When pulled on board, some of the rescued tourists were screaming, others in silent shock. Many were injured.

“Some people had pockets of burns, other people were fine, and others were really rough,” Schade says.

The passengers set up an assembly line, passing water bottles back and forth so they could be filled as quickly as possible, and the water poured on to burns.

Passengers handed over their jackets, as well as inhalers and eye drops. Men took off their shirts to cover passengers who were in shock. Halfway back to the mainland, Schade says, a coastguard vessel met the boat and paramedics came on board. With experts tending to the injured, Schade and the other passengers tried to calm those who were upset.

“We kept telling people that we were getting closer [to land] and then realising we actually weren’t that close,” he says.

On the wharf at Whakatāne (New Zealand’s North Island), Phil van Dusschoten, a veteran dive and dolphin-watching boat operator, watched in dismay as passengers disembarked from two of the three boats owned by White Island Tours. Many were shirtless; some ash-covered survivors were loaded into waiting ambulances.

He had been worried when he saw the smoke; while the White Island volcano had erupted many times before, this had happened in the middle of the day during the busy tourist season. A cruise ship was docked at the nearby port of Tauranga, and he had noticed that all three of White Island Tours’ boats, instead of the usual one or two, had left for the island that morning.

As he saw the plume rise, his coastguard radio came alive with voices, and there was a flurry of activity at the waterfront – five ambulances and a growing crowd of residents. Rescue helicopters buzzed overhead.

It was apparent from emergency radio broadcasts, he says, that because of their injuries, not everyone would be able to leave the island on their own.

“I imagine that it would have been havoc,” says Van Dusschoten, who has visited White Island many times, and often skippers dolphin-watching and fishing tour boats in the area. There was only one walkway leading to and from the crater, which was filled with boiling water, he says.

This is not the first time White Island Tours has faced disaster. In 2017, when the firm was under different ownership, a fire on a boat forced 60 people to jump overboard, many without life jackets. All survived.

The company is the sole operator taking visitors on to Whakaari by sea. About 10,000 tourists a year visit the island.

Read the full article in The Guardian.

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.