Prime Minister statement on White Island eruption

HOUSE STATEMENT

Mr Speaker, yesterday just after 2pm, Whakaari / 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 and 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 in this House would like 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 US, 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. I do want to commend them all. I’ve seen the huge efforts going on and their contributions are enormous. The Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Emergency Management Group continues to lead the response to this event, 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 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 they need. Police have also activated their missing persons/family liaison team to work with the families of missing or injured people.

MFAT are also on the ground in Whakatane, working alongside the Police to provide assistance and support.

I 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 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 had 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, there will be bigger questions in relation to this event. These questions must be asked and they must be answered. 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 support those affected and that is also the focus of the Police.

Mr Speaker, 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 to 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 from St John’s who boarded a Coastguard vessel and 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 were landing on White Island and as you can imagine, they were greeted with devastating scenes but they 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 risk to their own personal safety.

Mr Speaker, just sitting off Whakaari is a place called paepae Aotea. It’s a collection of rocks that jut out of Te Moana nui a toi. For some of the Mataatua 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 forever linked to our nation and we will hold you close.