Heroism, devastation after deadly New Zealand volcano eruption

Around 100 people were near New Zealand’s White Island volcano when it erupted suddenly on Monday, leaving authorities scrambling to treat the injured. (File/AFP)
Updated 10 December 2019

Heroism, devastation after deadly New Zealand volcano eruption

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said five people had died and eight more were presumed dead after Monday’s eruption
  • Amid questions over why tourists were allowed to visit the volcano, police announced a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries

WHAKATANE, New Zealand: Tales of heroism, devastation and horrifying injuries emerged Tuesday after New Zealand’s smoldering White Island volcano exploded, killing an estimated 13 people.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said five people had died and eight more were presumed dead after Monday’s eruption, while dozens of injured had been airlifted to hospitals across the country.

Among the 47 people caught on the island during the sudden eruption were tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany and Malaysia, as well as local tour guides.

Amid questions over why tourists were allowed to visit the volcano, police announced a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries.

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.

Intensive care paramedic Russell Clark was among those dispatched by helicopter to the caldera, which sits semi-submerged 50 kilometers (30 miles) out to sea.

There he found an “overwhelming” and “shocking” scene of devastation.

“We didn’t find any survivors,” he told TVNZ, remembering 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 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.”

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” and fast-moving cloud of grey ash.

Despite the danger, Hopkins said the boat moved closer to the shore after seeing survivors who had jumped 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 tourist tried to tend to their blistered skin.

Top New Zealand health official Pete Watson said 27 of the 34 survivors were being treated for burns to more than 71 percent of their bodies.

“It’s important not to underestimate the gravity of the injuries suffered,” he said.

After an initial rush, concerns about further eruptions, poisonous gases and choking ash stalled efforts to recover bodies.

The risks were underscored Tuesday when a large-but-harmless 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck to the east of the disaster zone.

Ardern said New Zealanders were mourning alongside those from overseas tourists caught up in the disaster.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief and in your sorrow,” the 39-year-old prime minister said, just months after managing another national crisis during Christchurch’s deadly twin mosque attacks.

Many of the victims are believed to be Australian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned his compatriots to brace for the worst.

He said there were fears that three of the five dead were Australian, and another eight citizens were unaccounted for.

“This is a very, very hard day for a lot of Australian families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy,” he told reporters in Sydney.

The Malaysian government said one if its citizens had died and two British women were confirmed to be among those injured.

The eruption at White Island — also known as Whakaari — occurred on Monday afternoon, thrusting a thick plume of white ash 3.6 kilometers (12,000 feet) into the sky.

When the blast occurred, it was being visited by a group of more than 30 people from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which left Sydney on a 12-day voyage last week.

The island in the picturesque Bay of Plenty attracts more than 17,000 visitors every year.

But the threat level at the volcano had been raised in recent days, leading to questions about whether it was safe for tour groups to visit.

New Zealand police indicated that would be one focus of their investigation.

“I can confirm now that we will commence a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death and injuries on White Island,” deputy commissioner John Tims told reporters.


Troops from Niger and France hunt for killers of aid workers in Niger nature reserve

The wreckage of the car where six French aid workers, their local guide and the driver were killed by unidentified gunmen riding motorcycles in an area of southwestern Niger. (AFP)
Updated 10 August 2020

Troops from Niger and France hunt for killers of aid workers in Niger nature reserve

  • Attackers on motorbikes ambushed the group of aid workers as they drove through the giraffe reserve
  • France has 5,100 troops deployed in the arid region south of the Sahara desert

NIAMEY: French and Nigerien soldiers searched through a giraffe reserve and the surrounding area in Niger on Monday for traces of the gunmen who killed six French aid workers, a French military source said.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor also opened an investigation into the incident, in which attackers on motorbikes ambushed the group as it drove through the reserve located 65 km (40 miles) from the capital Niamey — an area considered safe by the Niger government.
The French aid workers were employed by the charity ACTED. A local driver working for the relief group and a guide were also killed. ACTED called the murders “senseless and cowardly.”
“This heinous crime must not go unpunished, nor will it distract us from our commitment to support the people of Niger,” said ACTED, which has worked to help vulnerable populations in the country since 2010.
No one has claimed responsibility for the assault. But France and other countries have warned people against traveling to parts of Niger where militants including Boko Haram and an affiliate of Daesh operate.
“Military operations are ongoing today,” the military source said.
In the clearest sign yet that France believes a militant group was behind the attack, the office of France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said it was launching an investigation on suspicion of the involvement of a terrorist group.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he shared their families’ grief. “Our determination to combat armed terrorist groups is resolute. The fight continues,” Macron tweeted.
The reserve southeast of Niamey is home to West Africa’s last sizeable population of giraffe in the wild. In the wet season, thick green acacia bushes dot the flat, sandy plains.
It is a popular attraction in Niger, a vast country that borders seven states in an unstable region including Libya, Mali, Chad, Algeria and Nigeria.
France, a former colonial power in the region, has 5,100 troops deployed in the arid region south of the Sahara desert since 2013. The United States also has soldiers based in Niger.
Nonetheless, militant violence has been on the rise.