Tuesday 10 December 2019

White Island, dark story

I've lived with volcanoes most of my life. I could see the side of an old crater from the kitchen window of the house I grew up in. I can see the double peak of one from my chair right now, in the haze across the Gulf. They're common throughout New Zealand, just part of the scenery, which they've helped to create. Most of them are extinct, a few are dormant, a couple active. Most active of all is Whakaari White Island, so it wasn't surprising that it erupted yesterday. It was certainly shocking, though, because it happened while several parties of tourists were visiting it from Whakatane.
So far we know that five people have died, and 31 are scattered around various hospitals in the country, getting specialist treatment for serious burns (it was a hydrothermal eruption, ie mainly super-heated steam). They are Kiwis and tourists from a number of countries, especially Australia. Some were passengers on the giant Ovation of the Seas cruise ship that had called in at Tauranga. Eight are still missing, on the island and so far unrecoverable because it's too dangerous to land there, but they are presumed dead. Cameras recorded them near the crater lake a minute before the eruption so it's very unlikely that they were able to escape to the only shelter on the island, a shipping container that's about a 10-minute walk away from there, near the old sulphur factory and the jetty.
Helicopters and a tour boat swooped in to help rescue people straight away, but haven't been allowed back. It's a very unpredictable volcano. The GeoNet activity level for it was 2 yesterday (maximum is 5). When I went there in 2017 with Frontier Helicopters (now called Kahu and active in the rescue effort) it was 1, but still awesomely active, and so immensely impressive and spectacular that I was especially pleased to have got there. As usual, my pedestrian lack of imagination and total trust in my guide meant that I never actually considered that anything bad might happen, even though he told us about the eruption in the middle of the night in 1914 that killed ten factory workers in their beds.
As I remember, we had to sign the usual Kiwi-lite waiver before boarding the chopper - nothing like the closely-typed multi-page document they give you in the US - and were given hard (plastic) helmets and gas masks (filter only) to use when clouds of sulphur dioxide blew our way. They did that quite frequently as we slowly wandered around, marvelling at the steam and fumeroles, the yellow and red staining of the rocks, the sinister cloudy turquoise of the crater lake, and the artistically-pleasing wreck of the factory. We were there for about an hour, looking and listening, and then boarded our chopper again to fly away, all of us happy to have visited such a dramatic and remarkable place. We should have felt lucky, too. Can you imagine those poor people's terror?


the queen said...

I was hoping that a) you weren’t there during the eruption and b) you had been there before the eruption and could give your view, so both boxes ticked.

TravelSkite said...

Happy to be of service! Also happy to have been there, and had my stories published, well before this dreadful event - it's going to be interesting to see how long it is before tours recommence, if ever.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...