Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard
Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): I wish to make a ministerial statement on behalf of the Government on the eruption of Whakaari/White Island. Just after 2 p.m., White Island erupted. There were two explosions, one after the other, in quick succession. The police have advised that of the 47 people located on or near the island at the time of the eruption, five are deceased and 31 have sustained injuries—many are critical. A further eight are still missing. Three have been discharged from hospital overnight. The scale of this tragedy is devastating.
Police and Defence Force personnel have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption. However, no signs of life have been detected. In the immediate aftermath of the eruption, a number of helicopter pilots made the conscious decision to fly to the island to try to rescue people. One Westpac Rescue Helicopter, two private helicopters, along with a helicopter from the tour operator, Volcanic Air, all landed on the island after the eruption to assist survivors.
I want to acknowledge their courage. In their immediate efforts to get people off the island, those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extremely dangerous circumstances. Having met them just this morning, I suspect their own personal safety was the last thing on their minds, and I’m sure all of this House would wish to pay tribute to them.
Our hearts go out to the families of those who are injured, missing, or deceased. Among those injured or missing are people from Australia, the United States, the UK, China, Germany, Malaysia, as well as New Zealand. To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated. To our international partners and friends, we will do everything we can to support you as you have supported us in times past. In particular, our family in Australia has been heavily impacted. We feel the pull of our bond acutely at this time. Central and local government, iwi, and private industry are engaged in the response to ensure we are providing necessary support to everyone affected, and I do want to commend them all. I’ve seen the huge efforts that are going on, and their contribution is enormous.
The Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Emergency Management Group continues to lead the response to this event. They’re focusing on providing welfare support for victims, survivors, and their families. The group is supported in its work by the National Emergency Management Agency, which is also coordinating the response at the national level.
The New Zealand Police are, quite rightly, focused on coordinating the recovery operation, supported by Fire and Emergency New Zealand. Police are also working urgently to confirm the exact number and identity of those who are unaccounted for so that their families and loved ones have the certainty that they need. Police have also activated their missing persons family liaison team to work with the families of missing or injured people. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are also on the ground in Whakatāne working alongside the police to provide that assistance and support.
I want to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of health professionals who are working across the country, and I mean across the country, to prioritise support to those injured. In some cases this has meant people have been moved around the country to ensure that they have the best expert care. That means that they are in Middlemore, Waikato, Christchurch, Auckland, the Hutt, and Tauranga. I met with first responders and health professionals this morning. They worked tirelessly in the most devastating circumstances. Many of them had not yet rested or slept. The toll that the impact of this extraordinary tragedy has had on them was obvious.
The New Zealand Defence Force has deployed helicopters, drones, and observational equipment to further assess the environment. The HMNZS Wellington is also in the area. We know there is much work to be done over the coming days and weeks. We know too that there will be bigger questions in relation to this event. These questions must be asked and they must be answered, and police and WorkSafe will be putting out statements setting out that process, as I understand, later today. But our focus now is on discharging our duty of care to those affected, and that is also the focus of police.
As we focus on the tragic events at Whakaari/White Island, I’m reminded of two things. There is no limit to New Zealand’s capacity to mobilise, to respond, to care and embrace those impacted by tragedy. We are a nation full of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I heard stories of, for instance, first responders, St Johns, who boarded a Coast Guard vessel, made their way out to sea, and boarded in the middle of a journey one of the vessels returning to the mainland in order to give first aid support as soon as they could. There were two of them amongst many, many injured at that time until they reached other first responders on shore. I heard the story of those helicopter operators who when landing on White Island, as you can imagine, were greeted with devastating scenes, but did all they could to take off every survivor from that island and bring them immediately back to the mainland. I have no doubt that they saved lives at great risk to their own personal safety.
Just sitting off Whakaari is a place called Te Paepae o Aotea. It’s a collection of rocks that jut out of Te Moana-nui-a-Toi. For some of the Mātaatua tribes it is where those who have passed on begin their journey to the afterlife. I say to those who have lost and grieve: you are for ever linked to our nation and we will hold you close.