Australia

Rescuers describe 'Chernobyl-like' scene on White Island after volcano eruption

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Rescuers have described the horrific scene on White island immediately after the deadly volcano eruption.

First responders have described the "Chernobyle-like" scene they were confronted with when they went to search for survivors on New Zealand's White Island shortly after Monday's volcanic eruption. 

Intensive care paramedic Russell Clark was among those dispatched by helicopter to the volcano, which sits semi-submerged 50 kilometres out to sea.

He was confronted by an "overwhelming" and "shocking" scene of devastation.

An image provided by visitor Michael Schade shows White Island (Whakaari) volcano, as it erupts, in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, 09 December 2019.
White Island (Whakaari) volcano erupted on Monday.
EPA/MICHAEL SCHADE

"We didn't find any survivors," he told TVNZ, recalling a dust-covered helicopter grounded with its rotor blades damaged.

"It was like... I've seen the "Chernobyl" mini-series and it was just everything was just blanketed in ash.

"I can only imagine what it was like for the people there at the time - they had nowhere to go and an absolutely terrible experience for them."

Intensive care paramedic Russell Clark described White Island after the volcano as like Chernobyl.
Intensive care paramedic Russell Clark described White Island after the volcano as like Chernobyl.

Six people are confirmed dead with another eight presumed to have died in the disaster. Thirty-one people are in hospital with the majority suffering burns to more than a third of their body. 

Three Australians are believed to be among the confirmed dead and another seven remain unaccounted for.

The death toll could have been higher if it wasn't for the courage of people near the island when the volcano erupted, who risked their own lives to rescue survivors.  

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern praised the crews of four rescue helicopters for landing on the island soon after the eruption.

"Those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out," she told reporters.

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Identification process for victims of Whakaari eruption starts
Identification process for victims of Whakaari eruption starts

Commercial helicopter pilot Mark Law was one of the first to arrive and helped rescue 12 people.

"We found people dead, dying and alive but in various states of unconsciousness," Mr Law told the Guardian. 

He said they did not know how long it would take emergency services to get to the area. 

Pursuit Fishing Charters praised the "superhuman efforts" of one of its tour boat operators. 

"Having left the island only minutes before the eruption he was the first back on, rescuing and assisting numerous injured back onto the waiting boats," the company posted on Facebook.

White Island Tour operators rescuing people from the island after the eruption.
White Island Tour operators rescuing people from the Island after the eruption.
Twitter / Michael Schade

"He went back again and again, ignoring the toxic environment and personal risk, until he was satisfied there were no more obvious survivors remaining."

New Zealander Geoff Hopkins' tour boat was leaving the island when a huge plume burst from the volcano - at what scientists said was supersonic speed - followed by a "menacing" cloud of grey ash.

Despite the danger, Mr Hopkins said the boat moved closer to the shore after seeing survivors jump from the island into the sea to escape.

"I don't think there was anyone that came off who wasn't badly burnt," he told the New Zealand Herald, describing how victims screamed and went into shock as fellow tourists tried to tend to their blistered skin.

Additional reporting by AFP

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